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Mental illness is a significant threat to employers in terms of loss of productivity, absenteeism, disability and medical costs.

While stress and poor mental health are not one and the same thing – in fact, the right level of stress is an essential component of maximum performance in the workplace – prolonged periods of high stress levels are a risk factor for all forms of psychological illness. The consensus among the medical community is that prolonged exposure to stress is a predictor of depression and anxiety-related disorders.

We know stress levels are high, but how significantly are they affecting your employees? The Sun Life 2012 Canadian Health Index found that 72% of Canadians are currently experiencing “uncomfortable levels of stress” both in and outside of work. For example, 44% of Canadians reported they are currently experiencing uncomfortable levels of stress related to household finances, 30% experience uncomfortable stress related to personal relationships and 26% report high stress related to their personal health.

The relationship between work and stress

While work in itself can cause stress, and for some, distress, it’s important to remember that the role of work is generally a positive one. It’s a critical vehicle for self-fulfillment, involvement and social recognition.

The move from a state of positive stress into a state of distress or a mental health problem often occurs when workplace stress combines with the stresses of family life and other social pressures. This isn’t a rare occurrence, and while stress issues may not necessarily relate to work, the statistics show that the cost to the workplace can be high.

The good news is that employers – who provide a touch point for employees every work day – are ideally positioned to provide programs that can greatly reduce this impact.

Get strategic

In many workplaces, existing supports are not being used by employees due to both a lack of awareness and to the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health problems. So a strategic approach is needed to maximize existing resources and build on this foundation. Here are four steps employers can take to better address mental health problems in the workplace:

1. Improve mental health literacy: Mental health literacy refers to the knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders that aid in their recognition, management and prevention. It involves education and training – for managers in particular – that provide the skills to recognize mental disorders, understand causes, and direct employees to help from services. This training can also be instrumental in removing the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

2. Put existing programs under one umbrella: It’s important to clearly communicate and create greater awareness of any existing plans and programs – like Employee Assistance Programs – and bring them together under one umbrella. This gives employees a one-stop mental health resource that they can use as needed.

3. Program expansion: Health and wellness programs are a proven way of reducing employee stress and improving health – and can be structured to the needs of each organization. These can include lifestyle modification and coaching programs, financial literacy courses, screening and health promotion programs, or workplace changes such as the introduction of flex-hours and telecommuting that allow employees to more easily juggle work responsibilities with family obligations.

4. Disability management: For most of us, work is a healthy and fulfilling part of life, which is why disability management strategies that encourage a faster and more successful return to work for those who are off work is so important. Many benefits providers offer comprehensive disability management programs that are highly effective in re-integrating employees on disability leave into the workplace faster and more effectively.

This article is by Sun Life Financial, originally published on www.SmallBizAdvisor.ca