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This month, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Mental Health Matters” event was held after a two-year pandemic-related hiatus. Since the first iteration of the event in 2016, we have witnessed a positive movement to talk more openly about mental health and thereby destigmatizing mental illness. There’s still much work to do, but I think it’s important to celebrate progress. It is, of course, equally important not to rest on our laurels or to pay lip service to mental health without taking the necessary action to make those words meaningful. 

It’s no secret that the pandemic has made mental health worse on a large scale and we can’t expect to organically return to pre-pandemic levels instantly as we return to some normalcy this spring and summer – nor should we want to, we have to aim much higher than that. This will take intentional action on behalf of employers, employees and government. 

Statistics Canada recently released data that illustrates just how the pandemic has further eroded mental health across the country: 

  • One in four (25%) Canadians aged 18 and older screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in spring 2021, up from one in five (21%) in fall 2020 
  • In spring 2021, the proportion of Canadians who experienced at least one of these negative impacts due to COVID-19 was 83% for those aged 18 to 24, 80% for those aged 25 to 44, 70% for those aged 45 to 64, and 54% for those aged 65 and older. This pattern was similar to that of fall 2020 
  • Among Canadians who screened positive for at least one of the three mental health disorders assessed in this survey, 94% reported experiencing one or more impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic 

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve collectively been aware that mental health has been significantly and negatively impacted due to our primary focus being on efforts to mitigate the physical effects of COVID-19 – but we can’t do that indefinitely. I’ve seen first-hand the mental health effects on entrepreneurs, business owners and employees grow over the past two years and they need a reprieve. Most small business owners think of their employees as an extended family and they’ve been carrying the worry for not only their business, but their colleagues as well. It’s been a heavy burden.  

Mental wellness is first and foremost a health issue – but, like other aspects of health, it also has consequences for business and the economy. According to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: 

  • Every week at least 500,000 Canadians miss work due to mental illness  
  • The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated to be approximately $51 billion each year, with $6.3 billion resulting from lost productivity  
  • By 2041, it is estimated that the cumulative cost of poor mental health to the Canadian economy will exceed $2.5 trillion 

We are also working with the entire chamber network to address mental health on a federal level. Last year, the Fredericton chamber co-sponsored a successful policy resolution at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce titled “Addressing Workplace Mental Health” that calls on the federal government to: 

  • Work with stakeholders to update a national strategy on mental health including best practices of current programs in an effort to improve the management of mental health in the workplace.  
  • Ensure funding committed to health in federal budgets continues to provide dedicated amounts for provincial/territorial plans to address mental health challenges within their health care systems.  
  • Review government benefits compensation programs for individuals with mental health issues to ensure they are relevant to today’s needs and do not disproportionately place the cost burden on employers. 

While we do need government to play a role, I still think the biggest impact we can have is on an individual and organizational level. You don’t need to begin with robust policies and procedures – just start taking action today – small steps can make a big difference on your way to an organizational strategy. Start with remembering to be kind, we never know what someone is going through at any given time – be generous with giving the benefit of the doubt. Next, be mindful and intentional with your own mental health and that of your employees and colleagues. Find and share the resources needed to educate your organization about the value of positive mental health action. Don’t let minor problems become big ones. Communicate openly and honestly, which will lead to destigmatization, it really is ok not to be ok – it’s normal.   

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’. 

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