Health and Safety
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By Jeff Perron

While stigma is starting to lift around issues of mental health, individuals with mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety have arguably become more alienated than before.

Many public awareness campaigns surrounding mental illness have related to suicide prevention. This awareness has, in some effect, erroneously equated mental illness with suicide.

Though suicide is generally acknowledged as being among the most serious consequences of mental illness, it is far from being the most common. In fact, most employees dealing with issues of mental health will never be suicidal. With messaging emphasizing suicidality, employees with mild depression and anxiety may feel overlooked.

Worse yet, they could assume that because they do not feel suicidal, that they are not truly experiencing depression or anxiety.
Of course, suicide awareness and prevention is a key component of any mental health strategy. However, it doesn’t stop there, nor should it begin there. Employers need to be sure to put particular emphasis on mild mental illness. In fact, this should be the primary focus of any mental health strategy.

HR professionals and the business community are aware that mental illness is a leading cause of lost productivity, absence and disability. The majority of mental illness-related lost productivity is due to presenteeism – the “working wounded.” According to one study, working employees with depression lose 8.3 hours of productive time per week. That’s nearly one full workweek per month, and this doesn’t include the impact on quality of work.

By its very nature, presenteeism often goes unrecognized, including by the employee who is experiencing it. With some exceptions, traditional benefits are geared towards helping employees who have already self-identified as having a mental health concerns. Of course, employees generally access mental health benefits only after their mental health concern has become relatively serious. But how can employees who have milder forms of anxiety and depression be supported before their symptoms become more serious?

Employees need to understand what mild depression and anxiety look like so that they can catch it early. This makes health and wellness education efforts that are focused on mild mental illness all the more critical.

In-house campaigns that raise awareness of mild anxiety and depression don’t need to be elaborate or costly. To start, employees should know the early signs of anxiety and depression (which often go hand-in-hand) so that they can take them seriously and take early action to address them.
Common early signs of depression include: difficulty concentrating and making decisions, irritability, fatigue, sleep and appetite changes and loss of interest in activities or hobbies that used to be pleasurable. Common early signs of generalized anxiety disorder include excessive worry and tension, irritability, difficulty concentrating and difficulty sleeping.

This brief overview of symptoms highlights both the overlap between depression and anxiety and the commonality of the symptoms. Because the symptoms are ones that can affect anyone from time to time, it is easy to see how early anxiety and depression often get overlooked. In turn, presenteeism gets overlooked. The more employees and employers understand the symptoms, the more likely they are to take action on them.

In addition, employees should have a clear understanding of their mental health benefits – from EAP phone counselling to insurance for in-person sessions with psychologists. Just like employees know that an occasional massage can help maintain physical wellness, they should know that they don’t have to be in crisis to access mental health resources. One or two counselling sessions when an employee first notices that they are feeling depressed or anxious can go a long way to helping prevent greater problems down the road.

Ultimately, it is clear that employers want to do right by their employees when it comes to mental health. The decreased stigma on the topic is evidence of this and, in many cases, awareness efforts have been driven by caring employers. In order for stigma to fully lift, it will be important to focus efforts on early, milder forms of mental illness.

Jeff Perron is the founder of the TruReach Mental Health app

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