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The previously taboo subject of mental illness in the workplace was confronted head-on by a panel of business leaders and academics on November 4, at the Faculty Club in a discussion for MBA students called "Mental Health and Productivity: Sustainable Performance in the Brain-Based Economy." Dean of the Faculty of Management Peter Todd's opening remarks emphasized this discussion was an example of how the school's orientation has moved beyond the "business as usual" paradigm.
The panel was introduced by management professor Margaret Graham who told a personal story about one of her colleagues at the Harvard Business School who committed suicide years ago and how the staff had been warned not to tell the students about what had happened. She contrasted this with the current, more open attitude towards mental illness in the workplace.
McGill alumnus, Maria Gonzalez, chair of the McGill MBA Advisory Board and president of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting, started off the panel by summarizing a Gallup study comparing sustained growth businesses with average performance companies. The Gallup study concluded "people" factors were the leading indicator of financial success and profitability.
Successful companies all managed their staff in very specific ways. Management at these companies made employees feel valued, praised work well done at least once a week, monitored job performance, provided regular feedback, fostered a sense of teamwork and created an environment in which everyone was committed to quality work.
Rob MacLellan, executive vice president and chief investment officer of the Toronto Dominion Bank Financial Group, joked, "Twenty-five years ago, we knew how to deal with mental health problems. We rooted out the people and fired them." He said that the bank, which employs 47,000 people, has worked hard to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness, which is often first recognized in the workplace.
The bank offers free counselling to its employees through third parties who carefully guard the privacy of their clients. MacLellan was particularly pleased with a new, completely anonymous, online program called "Feeling Better?" to be in place in 2006. The program provides interactive questionnaires that will identify problems with depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism and postpartum depression. He said the bank will be the first financial institution to use this completely anonymous method to help employees identify emotional problems.
Bill Wilkerson, the CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, outlined the enormous financial costs associated with mental illness in the workplace. In Canada alone, $33 billion dollars a year is lost from industrial production. He said that mental disability now accounts for 48 percent of long-term insurance claims. Surprisingly, mental illness is concentrated among people in their thirties and forties and those most vulnerable to mental stress are new job entrants in their late teens and early twenties.
The year 2005 has been designated as the Year for Mental Health and Excellence at Work in Canada. According to Wilkerson, the new world of work is a brain-based economy in which 85 percent of new jobs require mental prowess. Because of this, mental health is a top priority and not a "soft" issue in terms of managing a business. He directly addressed the MBA students in the audience by saying "If you're clueless on this stuff, you're clueless — period."