Healthy brains in the workplace – a Conference Board Report

What if everyone at work were free of depression and anxiety? According to the Conference Board of Canada’s new report, healthy brains could add over a million people to the workforce and billions of dollars to the Canadian economy. Gains would be greatest for the youngest workers, age 15-24, because they will be in the workforce longest and because addressing illness early may prevent future relapses. The individual and economic impacts are significant when employers – in large and small organizations – promote conditions that support mental health. 

Healthy Brains at Work

The Conference Board of Canada’s Healthy Brains at Work research series explores the status of mental health and mental illness among working Canadians, and assesses factors such as the impact of workplace programs and benefits in relation to mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. The series includes four briefings that progress from collecting data to considering current and potential supports and treatments:  

Comments here focus on the fourth briefing, released in late November.

Gains when brains are healthy

Research findings that healthy brains would increase the size of both the workforce and the Canadian economy serve as incentives for employers to optimize preventive activities and supports for mental illness. Findings that these increases would vary according to the age of the employee help employers target supports most effectively. Given that only 10% of employees suffering from depression and anxiety are currently receiving proper treatment, the challenge for employers grows. Table 1 shows what might happen if all employed Canadians with depression or anxiety received optimal treatment and were fully functional, or if only an additional 10% became functional. It also shows variations according to age.

Table 1: The effects of optimal treatment


Age 15-65

1.2 M Canadians could be working full time and fully functional  $32.3 B  1.2 B
Age 15-24   $2.2 B $109 M
Age 25-44   $13.2 B $563 M
Age 45-65   $12.6 B $534 M


Age 15-65

545,000 Canadians could be working full time and fully functional 17.5 B  $681 M
Age 15-24   $837 M $35 M
Age 25-44   $7 B $295 M
Age 45-65   $8.3 B $351 M
* Note: About 50% of Canadian workers experience both depression and anxiety.

Why focus on young workers?

Discussing their findings, researchers focus on young workers for several reasons:

  • Longer Work Life: Although the economic effects for the youngest age group in relation to other groups are small, researchers point out that the negative effects of reduced functionality can persist over an individual’s entire working life if they are not treated. If early treatment is successful, an employee’s working life will be longer and overall contribution to productivity, higher.
  • More Mental Health Concerns:  The incidence of mood disorders is higher among young workers than other age groups. Research shows that approximately 7.1% of people between ages 15 and 24 “have lived with a depressive episode within the last year.”
  • Industry-Specific Issues: Findings indicate that workers in some industries are more prone to mental illness than others. Results show that in some industries, more than 15% of the workforce has lived with either a mood disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Industries with a higher prevalence of mood disorders, such as accommodation and food service, also have a higher number of younger workers.
  • Precarious Employment: Young workers are more likely to have more part-time and temporary work where they do not have workplace benefits.

Scenarios developed by Conference Board researchers indicate that with optimal treatment, workers with symptoms of depression who are now unable to work or work below capacity, would function fully. Another 195,000 Canadians would be part of the workforce.” Similarly, if workers with symptoms of anxiety received optimal treatment, a significant number of Canadians who were previously unable to work would be able to enter the workforce. In both cases, the increase in the number of fully functioning workers would have a positive effect on productivity.

Optimal treatment

For employers, keys to how these data will affect their workplace lie in how “optimal treatment” is defined, and what conditions will be required to achieve that treatment level. In the first instance, “optimal treatment” is defined as treatment to be fully functional at work, including “treatment to remission without residual symptoms.” In the second, previous research has shown that an important part of creating conditions that support mental health and address mental illness in the workplace is having a comprehensive mental health strategy or plan of action, that integrates programs, practices, benefits, and policies. Survey results revealed, however, that only 39% of employers had implemented a mental health strategy and only 42% had a policy. Barriers to implementation included a lack of financial and human resources or time. Among other tools to help employers is the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC). The Standard includes a set of resources to help employers adopt a more strategic approach to promoting psychological health at work and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors.

Benefits to meet the need

Treatment for mental illness includes prescription medications and/or psychological counselling. Since finding the most appropriate treatment for specific individuals is often a lengthy process, initiatives such as CAN-BIND are being developed to facilitate that process.1 Employer benefits include prescription drug coverage, employee assistance programs and paramedical services such as psychotherapy or counselling. Employers offering such benefits must consider issues such as whether they are offered only to full-time permanent employees, whether reimbursement levels are capped and, generally, how to balance benefits costs and their sustainability with optimal health outcomes. 

The Healthy Brains series focuses on Canada’s entire working population, not just workers with benefits. Researchers note that except in Quebec, private plans in Canada are voluntary. They note that about 11% of Canadians have no drug coverage and about 20 % report being uninsured or underinsured. People in the latter category are more likely to 

  • Work in small and medium-sized organizations.
  • Be employed part-time.
  • Work in a non-union environment.
  • Earn low wages.

Researchers say they are unsure how employers that do not provide benefits or provide limited benefits can address workers mental health needs. They note that some employers have redesigned their benefit packages to target mental health. They cite Sun Life’s expansion of its psychological benefit and increased the amount of coverage. Manulife has also changed its coverage and raised the financial limit. Starbucks, an employer of young workers has boosted its coverage for therapy.2 In addition, researchers point to changes in public policy. Since January 1, 2018, Ontario’s OHIP+ has provided free prescription medications with no upfront costs for children and youth 24 years or younger. This measure should ease the burden on employer plans and help address the needs of young workers which, as research has shown, are likely to be greater than the needs of older workers, and ultimately more costly in terms of both workforce growth and productivity.

A rich source of information for employers

For employers, the Healthy Brains at Work briefings are a rich source of information about the mental health of today’s workforce, strategies for addressing employee needs, and the future implications of current trends. Instead of focusing solely on the negative aspects of the current situation, researchers have provided incentives for action by stressing the great gains to be made by providing conditions for optimal mental health, including the incremental gains that might be achieved on the way to a fully functioning, full-time workforce. bh


1 See earlier bh articles:  CAN-BIND – A Path to Treating Depression; Disease Management – Clinical Depression: Biomarkers Not a Smile and Doctor on Call: Claudio Soares – Clinical Depression – CAN-BIND.

2 See Starbucks takes the lead.

Categories: Uncategorized