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The 2014 conference will take place November 24–26, 2014 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Calgary, AB


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Maximizing the Potential of Employees Experiencing Depression

July 18th, 2014

It is estimated that 11 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women in Canada will experience a major depression during their lives.[1] This is a major concern for employers. Depression can have a profound impact on individual employees and their families, but also on the workplace.

In Canada, at any given time, almost 4 per cent of employees are experiencing a depression.[2],[3] Individuals with depression often experience confusion, listlessness, and difficulties with concentration and memory. Evidence suggests that this can lead to an 11 per cent decrease in their productivity at work.[4] And these cognitive difficulties can linger even after a physician has deemed an employee fit to return to work.

In a Conference Board of Canada survey in 2013, two-thirds of employees who had taken a leave of absence from work due to a depressive episode still encountered challenges with concentration, memory, decision-making, and performing everyday tasks once they returned to the workplace. Ninety-five per cent of these employees also said that these challenges negatively affected their work.

There are a number of ways employers can support employees who have experienced a depressive episode and help them return to productive work. Supervisors and managers need training to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, including depression. This will allow them to direct employees who may be in need toward the appropriate resources. Otherwise, decreases in productivity may be treated as a performance issue, when what is needed is to ensure that employees receive the appropriate treatment, accommodation, and support to keep them healthy and productive at work.

Employees who experience depression or return to work after a leave of absence related to a depressive episode may require additional assistance and workplace accommodation in order to be fully productive at work. Think outside the box when deciding on an appropriate accommodation measure. A private office in a noise-free environment or noise-reducing headphones might be helpful for individuals who experience difficulties with concentration. In order to ensure that the correct accommodation measure is in place, consult with the employee. The employee may already have resolved the issue in his or her private life, and this solution can potentially be adapted for the workplace.

A toxic work environment can hinder an employee’s mental health. If an employee is chronically stressed at work or feels unsupported by his or her colleagues or supervisor, this can lead to the development or exacerbation of a mental health issue. If an individual is returning to work after a leave of absence due to depression, a hostile work environment can also lead to a relapse. On the other hand, a supportive work environment can act as a buffer against stress, even in one’s personal life. To fully promote mental health in the workplace and support individuals who experience depression, employers must ensure that their work environment is supportive and that they proactively deal with conflicts, either between colleagues or with supervisors.

[1] Health Canada, It’s Your Health: Depression (Ottawa: Health Canada, 2009).
[2] Dan Bilsker, Merv Gilbert, and Joti Samra,  Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing With Mood Problems in the Workplace (Vancouver: BC Mental Health & Addiction Services, 2007).
[3] Thomas Stephens and Natacha Joubert, “The Economic Burden of Mental Health Problems in Canada.” Chronic Diseases in Canada 22, no. 1 (2001): 18–23.
[4] Debra Lerner, and others, “The Clinical and Occupational Correlates of Work Productivity Loss Among Employed Patients With Depression,” Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 46, no. 6 (June 2004): S46–S55.

Karla Thorpe

Posted by: Karla Thorpe on July 18th, 2014

Karla Thorpe, Director, Workplace Health and Wellness Research, The Conference Board of Canada

Standing Up to the Health Risks of Sitting Down

January 29th, 2014

The health risks of sitting have been big news in recent months. Publications from Maclean’s[1] to Runners World[2] and even The Economist[3] have featured stories about the potential health impacts from prolonged sitting—even for active people who manage to squeeze in some amount of physical fitness activity during their day. Researchers who have spent years investigating these risks must feel gratified that their findings have reached the popular press and the message is getting out. Sitting is being called the “new smoking.” But now comes the inevitable question: What to do about it?

We spend a tremendous amount of time sitting each day, and a large part of that is spent at work. So the solutions must include employers, employees, and their workplaces. In November 2012, members of The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management executive network met to hear the evidence around sedentary behaviour and explore practical solutions for reducing this risk. The meeting included presentations by global experts Dr. James Levine and Dr. Peter Katzmarzyk, and a case example of Via Rail Canada’s efforts to help its employees become more active and healthy.

That meeting had a strong impact on the participants—and on one person in particular. Dr. Peter Sargious is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary and has been the Chair of the Conference Board’s Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management since its inception. Peter is also the Chronic Disease Management Lead for W21C in Calgary—a research and innovation test site and research centre led by a partnership between Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary.[4] As a researcher and clinician with a specialty in chronic disease, Peter is well aware of the risks of sedentary behaviour and incorporates this knowledge in his clinical practice. At a personal level, he was concerned that the time he spent sitting behind a desk was hurting his own health, even though he is an active runner. He had been considering changes to his workspace to reduce his time spent sitting. The meeting in 2012 provided the spark for him to act.

Peter Sargious workstation
Peter Sargious demonstrating the use of his new workstation in his office at W21C.

A few weeks ago, Peter and W21C hosted the fall meeting of the chronic disease network in Calgary, and members were fortunate to have a tour of the W21C Healthcare Human Factors Simulation Lab and Peter’s office. Over the course of this past year, and with support from his organization, Peter transformed his office from a traditional desk and chair, to one that includes a walking treadmill and standing desk. During the tour, he demonstrated the equipment and shared his experience on how he has adapted to this new style of desk work. Others in his organization are following Peter’s example and making changes to reduce their sitting time.

In some workplaces, moving about is not an option. A few years ago I visited a medical device manufacturing facility in New York State. Through large plate glass windows I could see rows of people in full protective suits seated and assembling equipment in a highly controlled, sterile environment. But outside the windows in the corridor where I stood was a row of treadmills—a spot where employees could spend all or a portion of their breaks walking. Some were doing just that while also listening to music and reading.

Other organizations are adopting simple, easy to implement solutions, such as walking meetings. The Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario has incorporated walking meetings and facilitated the practice through the creation of mapped routes and an online booking system.[5] Reconfiguring meeting spaces, such as providing stand-up meeting tables, is another option organizations can explore.

Enough is known about this significant health risk for employers and employees to act. The trend toward sedentary work is unlikely to change and workable solutions to minimize the risks must be found and implemented. Workplaces that have a predominantly sedentary environment should take the lead and share their experiences and solutions with others. The rewards, both for employees and for employers, can be tremendous.

[1] Kate Lunau, “Why Sitting Might Kill You,” Maclean’s (March 12, 2012).
[2] Selene Yaeger, “Sitting Is the New Smoking,” Runner’s World (July 20, 2013).
[3] The Economist, “Standing Orders” (August 10, 2013).
[4] W21C, Innovation, Education, Research, and Health Care—Together at W21C.
[5] Travis Saunders, Walk and Talk: Promoting Walking Meetings (November 6, 2013).


Karla Thorpe

Posted by: Karla Thorpe on January 29th, 2014

Karla Thorpe, Director, Workplace Health and Wellness Research, The Conference Board of Canada

Minding What Matters: Gaps in Programs for Employees With Mental Health Issues Persist

January 15th, 2014

Mental health issues are a significant contributor to absenteeism in the workplace, which is costly to the Canadian economy. For many employers, mental health is the leading cause of both short-term and long-term disability leaves of absence. And the average length of absence is higher for mental health-related leaves of absence (or when mental health issues exist alongside physical health issues) than for physical health issues alone.

A 2013 report by The Conference Board of Canada, Disability Management: Opportunities for Employer Action, suggests that significant gaps still exist in how Canadian organizations approach mental health issues. Employers surveyed for the study appear to place a greater emphasis on physical health and well-being programs and treatment than on providing support for employees’ psychological health and safety. While the reasons for this disparity stem perhaps from long-standing occupational health and safety legislative requirements, Canadian organizations need to adapt to new realities.

A year ago, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) launched a voluntary standard that employers can adopt to promote the psychological health and safety of employees. While interest in the standard has been high, employers continue to struggle with how to implement more supportive practices and programs to assist employees with mental health issues. It appears there is still a long way for many employers to go before workplace health programs address the full array of physical and mental health issues that are so prevalent among the Canadian population.

Employers have been exploring ways to expand wellness programs to include mental health and well-being. Conference Board of Canada research shows that more than half of all Canadian employers surveyed offer programs, services, or benefits that support employees’ mental health and wellness (53 per cent), although they remain less common than programs to support employees’ physical well-being 61 per cent).

As highlighted in the table, gaps in employees’ perceptions of how employers manage mental health issues are more pronounced.

While advances have been made in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, employees remain less comfortable discussing mental health issues at work. Many employees expressed concern about their privacy being breached or repercussions in terms of their employment security, financial rewards, or career path.

There is certainly still a perception that employees who have been off work as a result of a mental health issue are treated differently than those who have taken a leave of absence due to a physical health problem. The survey also found that individuals perceive that employees with mental health issues do not receive the same degree of support upon return to the workplace after a leave of absence.

This lack of support is likely contributing to an increased duration of absence and higher rate of relapse or recurrence. For employees with physical health problems, the return-to-work success rate is 83 per cent. For employees with mental health issues, return to work success is only 63 per cent (and drops to 56 per cent among those with both physical and mental health issues).

The failure to address mental health issues directly contributes to employee absences from the workplace. Another recent study by The Conference Board of Canada, Missing in Action: Absenteeism Trends in Canadian Organizations, found that absenteeism is costing our economy over $16 billion a year in lost productivity. An impact of this magnitude should motivate employers to understand the root causes or drivers of absenteeism within their organizations and address the underlying issues. The potential payoff is significant—by increasing their focus on programs and treatment for mental health issues, employers could reduce absenteeism and boost productivity, which hits the bottom line.

A new series of workshops designed by The Conference Board of Canada to assist employers in Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces will be held across the country in 2014–15.

Karla Thorpe

Posted by: Karla Thorpe on January 15th, 2014

Karla Thorpe, Director, Workplace Health and Wellness Research, The Conference Board of Canada

Running on Empty

December 17th, 2013

Feeling a little tired and stressed out around the holidays? You’re not alone. Many Canadians are not getting the sleep they say they need. When asked to choose, two-thirds of Canadians would pick a good night’s sleep over a fun night out on the town. Even among 18 to 24 year olds, the majority (55 per cent) would choose to catch up on their sleep.

During a typical work week, more than a quarter of workers say they go into work feeling tired either every day (15 per cent) or most days (11 per cent).

And nearly half of people who don’t get enough rest say that this affects their work productivity or performance. This is not welcome news for employers.

The two single biggest contributors to Canadians’ lack of sleep are work stress or job demands (25 per cent) and home stress or life demands (24 per cent). Perhaps not surprisingly, demands at home are a more significant source of lack of sleep for women (31 per cent) than for men (17 per cent).

Certain segments of the population seem to be more well rested. As an example, men are twice as likely as women to report that they never go into work tired (28 per cent versus 14 per cent of women).

Workers with children are significantly more likely to say they go into work tired every day of the week (22 per cent). Very few individuals with children in the household (13 per cent) report that they never go into work feeling tired.

Lack of sleep and its impact on individuals’ productivity at work is an area that is just beginning to receive attention from Canadian employers. In the past year, only 20 per cent of individuals had received information from their employer about the importance of sleep or received resources to help them manage fatigue more effectively.

Employers in Alberta appear to be significantly further ahead in this regard. Four in ten workers in Alberta have received access to information or resources on managing fatigue.

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, there are a number of good habits that Canadian can adopt to ensure they get the right amount of quality sleep.

Tips for a Better Night Sleep

  1. Stick to a set sleep schedule (even on weekends).
  2. Be careful about what you eat and drink before bed.
  3. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual—with calming activities and limited screen time before bed.
  4. Make sure your surroundings are comfortable.
  5. Limit daytime naps to no more than 10 to 30 minutes.
  6. Include physical activity in your daily routine (but not right before bed).
  7. Try to manage your stress level—if needed, create a “to do” list to worry about tomorrow.

Source: Mayo Clinic.

The Conference Board of Canada has further research under way exploring ways in which Canadian employers can assist workers in getting the proper rest they need to function safely and effectively at work.

The upcoming meeting of the Conference Board’s Council on Workplace Health and Wellness Council on Workplace Health and Wellness, taking place in Toronto on March 6–7, 2014, will focus on stress, burnout, and fatigue management. If your organization would like to attend this important session, please contact Louise Chénier at chenier@conferenceboard.ca or by phone at 613-526-3090 ext. 305.

About the Poll

The Fatigue Management Survey was designed by Karla Thorpe, Director, Workplace Health and Wellness Research, at The Conference Board of Canada.

The survey was administered by Opinion Search to a nationally representative sample of 739 Canadians (aged 18 and over) employed on either a part-time or full-time basis. All surveys were conducted via telephone in English and French from October 24 to October 29, 2013. Calls were made using dual frame landline and mobile phone sampling. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.6 per cent in 19 out of 20 samples.

Karla Thorpe

Posted by: Karla Thorpe on December 17th, 2013

Karla Thorpe, Director, Workplace Health and Wellness Research, The Conference Board of Canada

Hit the Pause Button: End of Summer Reflection

August 29th, 2013

By Amy Jen Su, Managing Partner & Co-Founder of Isis Associates, Executive Coach, Author and BWC 2013 Final Keynote Speaker and Workshop Facilitator

It’s hard to believe that it is August 2013 and we are almost three quarters of the way through the year!  At these junctures such as the end of summer, it’s the perfect time to hit the pause button and step back to reflect.  There is a pace and rhythm we get into, and it’s easy in the lull of that rhythm to fall into auto-pilot and to “fall asleep” to what is happening.  The beauty of hitting pause is that we have the capacity at any moment in our lives to self-correct, recalibrate, and make a different set of choices.

We invite you to therefore, pause, pull way back from what you are “doing” and make sense of what you have done so far.

Acknowledge.  What has happened so far in 2013?  What have you completed?  Who have you been with?  What have been your favorite experiences?  Too often, we are onto the next thing.  The to-do list and the objectives not yet fulfilled loom large.  We allow ourselves to believe that we’re only as good as our next gig, next win, or next deliverable.  But in reality, a lot has happened.  You’ve accomplished.  You’ve gained new skills.  You’ve grown.  You’ve met some great people along the way.  Write these down.

Integrate.   As you write down your reflections, consider what you have learned.  What have you learned about what you enjoy doing, what gives you juice and renewal in your life and work?  What skills are you most excited to use now?  How can you update your own perception of yourself to who you are at this very moment?  Pull up your bio and update it.  Add to your resume.  Add to your life vision statement or personal manifesto.  Don’t wait for something like a yearly performance review cycle or the need to do a job search.  Do this, not as an evaluation, but as a celebration and integration.

Notice the blind spots.   As you scan the year, look at the trend-line against the various areas of your life – physical health, relationships, finances, work, etc.  Where have you spent your time and energy?  Is this in alignment to how you want to live your life?  Is there a miss somewhere?  Habits can be hard to break and we are pulled by the gravitational forces of where we are most comfortable or feel safe versus what’s most important to us.  Is there one domain of life you tend to ignore or dismiss when life and work get busy?  How can you bring some additional attention here?

Recalibrate.  Here’s the fun part – we still have more than a quarter of the year to go! For once, time is on our side!  Based on this reflection, where do you want to continue your efforts? What do you need to recalibrate?  What will have to change to make this change possible?  Do you need to make a different set of decisions?  Do you need support from others?  Give yourself permission to stop the hamster wheel and get off.

This reflection can be done from a number of vantage points:  for yourself or the leadership role you serve in, for your team/staff, or for your family.  As you look back, we suspect you’ll be blown away by the creativity and effort that has already been expended to date.  By acknowledging and integrating, you create some space around you to breathe and relax.  With new space, the blind spots and points of recalibration for the year become clearer.  And, with clarity, all becomes possible as you move forward.


For more information on Amy’s Leadership workshop on October 18th at The Better Workplace Conference 2013 in Halifax, Nova Scotia (her first Canadian session) click here. Only $175 if you register in August.


Posted by: hww on August 29th, 2013


“Great conference organization, great information, idea generation and networking. Thank you! “ — Holly Kennedy-Symonds, Burnaby, BC