Mental Health – Stigmatizing your own workforce

A few weeks ago we reported on a Statistics Canada analysis that showed very little real difference in the absenteeism rate between the public and private sectors.

This is likely a surprise to many for several reasons, not the least the continual bleating of right-wing stink tanks on how overpaid, lazy and pampered public sector workers are.

When, for example, the cofounder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health named Ottawa as the depression capital of Canada, the National Post’s Tasha Kheiriddan giddily dismissed the rising rate of depression as the product of an insufficient Ottawa night life, cold winters and hot summers.

She said unionized federal government workers were more inclined to make mental health and depression claims because they could.

She even went so far as to suggest that employment equity meant people were hired who couldn’t cope with their stressful jobs.

Kheiriddan’s resume is filled with leap frogging from one right-wing press mill to another. That includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Montreal Economic Institute and — our favorite junk social science purveyor — the Fraser Institute.  She has had a pulpit for these views in the National Post, CBC Newsworld and CPAC, or what the right would like the call the left-wing media.

If anyone were deserving of an award for furthering stereotypes and contributing to stigma in mental health, it would be Kheiriddan.

This continual campaign against public sector employees is both toxic and continuous to the point where public sector workers start believing this nonsense. Some are quick to judge the person with low output as being evidence of such goldbricking without ever taking the time to understand their circumstance.

Last week Karen Cohen, CEO of the Canadian Psychological Association told us that workplace accommodation for mental illness is the most difficult because of its invisibility.

According to another recent Statistics Canada survey, more than 1.5 million Canadians had a perceived unmet or partially met need for mental health care. A lot of these people would be our colleagues who need support, not scorn.

The estimated cost of mental illness in the workplace in Canada is $20 billion. The CPA estimates they could save $6-7 billion through early intervention.

But where is the political will for this, especially in such a poisoned public atmosphere?

This idea of the cushy public sector worker is completely at odds with the evidence. We’ve previously written about the research work by Carleton University researcher Linda Duxbury on role overload in health care.

Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the aforementioned business roundtable, put out a scathing release last November on the handling of federal job cuts, suggesting it has become “psychopathic bureaucracy.”

“Ministers don’t behave like employers, don’t see themselves as employers, and this is one of the reasons that federal civil public servants have been stigmatized by their own employer,” the release states.

Wilkerson may want to make a postcard of that text for Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak who regularly advocates for legislated public sector wage freezes, an end to early retirement, calls modest public pensions “gold-plated,” pledged major job cuts to provincial ministries and attacks on the ability of unions to sustain themselves. The Toronto Star called the Tory “Paths to Prosperity” a 26-page “blueprint for strangling the public sector.”

Wouldn’t you want to book off sick with that prospect hanging over you?

It’s not like mental illness is the exclusive domain of the public sector. Likely the rise in insecure contract-based work is also doing much to undermine the mental health of Canada’s private sector workforce too. Nearly one in three workers are now in insecure forms of employment.

A survey of workplaces in Canada and the U.S. by Great West Life contends that 18-25 per cent of the working population experiences depression each year. Worse still, mental illness is a contributing factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and COPD. Mental illness can have the same effect on life expectancy as smoking and even more than obesity.

Yet the percentage of health care spending on mental health in Canada is only 5 per cent – far below most other developed nations.

The fact that there is very little difference in true absenteeism between the public and private sector is an astonishing fact given the open attacks on public sector workers.

The goal should be to improve the working lives of both the public and private sectors, not tearing one down as an example to the other.

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