Labour Views Column for April 8, 2015
By Jack Bourassa,  REVP PSAC North

Canadian workers struggling with depression and mental health issues are one step closer to help, thanks to a landmark deal between one of Canada’s largest unions and the Conservative government.

The agreement – which seeks to tackle the underlying issues making public servants sick and increasing mental health claims – is one bright spot in a long and grueling round of negotiations between the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Treasury Board.

The joint task force on mental health will ensure a more proactive approach to improving mental health in the workplace. It will take a hard look at policies and workplace conditions across the public sector that may be driving people to depression and anxiety, conditions that make up half of all disability claims for the 100,000 PSAC workers.

The task force is the first of its kind in Canada, and it’s a very promising step for hundreds of thousands of Canadians who suffer from mental health issues and are unable to work. It also illustrates that the Conservative government is taking mental health seriously, and is prepared to work with unions to alleviate debilitating depression and anxiety.

The group will be made up of an equal number of union and employer representatives, and the long-term goals of the task force will be to focus on implementing measures to improve the overall mental health in the workplace, removing the stigma of mental health issues, and improving communication about mental health challenges at work.

Mental health issues are a very real and growing concern in Canada’s workplaces, too often ignored and shoved under the rug. Mental health advocates have for years urged the government to invest in the psychological health and safety of workers, but this joint task force is the first real step forward in that direction.

Mental health issues simply can’t be ignored any longer.  A report by Sun Life shows that nearly half of all claims made by federal employees are related to mental health issues.

Among the general public, about 20% of Canadians will experience mental health issues or severe depression in their lifetime. Even more alarming, almost half (49%) of those who feel they’ve suffered from severe depression or anxiety never went to see a doctor.

Mental health professionals are optimistic that the task force will lift the veil surrounding mental health issues.

The victory here is for all the employees who suffer with this,” Joseph Ricciuti, president of SEB Benefits and HR Consulting, who helped develop the Mental Health Commission’s national standard, told the Ottawa Citizen.  “Here is a process to improve the mental health of employees and protect their psychological health.”

The hope is that the joint task force will pick up steam, and can be used as a model for other provincial, territorial and municipal governments, as well as private employers across the country.