Investing in Staff Mental Health, Part 1: The Workplace Mental Health Crisis is Here

6 min read

How much money is Canada’s mental health crisis costing your firm? In honour of the recent Mental Health Week, we’re looking at ways that your firm can support your team’s mental health – and some of the reasons why you should want to. Read on to discover how Bell Canada achieved a 400% ROI on its corporate mental health initiatives.

A nationwide mental health crisis isn’t looming – it’s already here. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, which is Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, mental illness is responsible for over 500,000 workplace absences every single week. The Mental Health Commission of Canada, a non-profit organization that was created by the Government of Canada in 2007, says that mental illness costs the Canadian economy $50 billion per year in lost productivity. (The commission also notes that this is a conservative estimate – the true number is likely even higher.)

Meanwhile, crisis lines – the 24/7 phone lines that provide emergency support for people who are having a mental health crisis – have logged record numbers of calls since the pandemic started. In British Columbia, some regional crisis lines are seeing a 47% year-over-year increase in call volume.

Fast-paced industries like law and accounting have high burnout rates – and that was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the mental healthcare system to its breaking point. A March 2022 survey by the CBC and the Angus Reid Institute found that 54% of Canadians say their mental health has worsened since the start of the pandemic. 

The reported worldwide incidence of depression and anxiety increased by an unprecedented 25% during the first year of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the CBC in March 2022 that even this increase is “just the tip of the iceberg”; the World Health Organization suspects that the actual incidence of depression and anxiety is even higher than the official numbers suggest.

Complicating matters is the fact that Canada’s mental healthcare system is in shambles. Even before the pandemic, wait times to access mental healthcare exceeded medical guidelines. For issues like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, the wait time to receive psychological counselling can reach over 4 months, according to the Toronto Star.

In short: The mental health crisis is here, it’s too big to ignore, and it’s having a negative impact on every industry.

With government resources stretched to the point of breaking and the need for mental health services growing by the day, professional services firms cannot afford to let staff mental health be someone else’s problem. Ignoring staff mental health issues means your firm’s performance will suffer as staff become disengaged and disillusioned. Here’s what you need to know about mental health in the legal industry.

The Law Industry’s Mental Health Epidemic: Burnout, Anxiety, Depression, and Substance Abuse

Even though they might hide it well, lawyers are not okay. One study specific to the law industry found that up to 50% of practising attorneys suffer from depression and anxiety. In the United States, lawyers are listed as number 11 on the CDC’s Occupational Suicide List, a list of the professions with the highest suicide rates. One analysis by Stephanie Nemeth, Executive Legal Officer for the Government of Saskatchewan and a former member of the Saskatchewan Law Review Editorial Board, found that lawyers are 3.5 times more likely to suffer from depression and 1.6 times more likely to suffer from anxiety than the general population. 

Meanwhile, the Law Society of British Columbia’s Mental Health Task Force notes in its Second Interim Report that lawyers are at a high risk of substance abuse. The report also found that 40% of lawyers are experiencing some form of psychological distress, and that in some areas of practice, lawyer burnout rates are reaching as high as 30%.

Burnout in particular is a significant challenge for the legal industry; in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, lawyer-turned-self-help-author Liz Brown told columnist Leigh McMullan Abramson that “law is the only career I know of that has a sub-profession dedicated to helping people get out of it.”

Brown, a Harvard-educated former law firm partner, is the author of Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have, a career transition guide for burned-out lawyers. American constitutional lawyer and former Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has called Life After Law “the answer to Thank-God-it’s-Friday syndrome.”

In fairness, burnout can afflict anyone in any industry. (Some of us at Appara have experienced it in our past careers.)

But the legal industry in particular, with its long hours, high-stakes work, and cutthroat culture, is far more prone to burnout than, say, floristry. That means your staff are at a higher risk of burnout, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse simply by virtue of them working in law. If you want to keep your team performing at their peak – and especially if you want to help quell the exodus of top-tier lawyers from the industry – then embracing mental health initiatives in your firm is paramount.

The ROI of Workplace Mental Health Initiatives

Given the size of the economic impact that mental health challenges have on both individual firms and whole industries, legal and accounting firms owe it to their clients, their staff, and their professions to take staff mental health seriously. But beyond it being the right move for the industry, supporting mental health in the workplace is also good business.

In knowledge-based industries, your team’s performance is dependent on their mental wellness. Poor mental health can impact everything from attention, to problem solving, to memory, to creativity, and more. When your team’s value is rooted in their mental capabilities, any mental health issue – no matter how small – could affect their ability to get the job done.

Case in point: A 2018 research paper published in the Cambridge University Press journal CNS Spectrums found that a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder correlates with reduced learning ability, worse memory, shorter attention span, difficulty concentrating, and slower mental processing speed. That means depression is much more than just “feeling blue” – it’s also associated with cognitive impairment. 

(Food for thought: If you wouldn’t let your staff come to work drunk or high, then why would you let them come to work depressed?)

But when firms invest in mental wellness initiatives, it shows up in the bottom line: One 2019 Deloitte report found that workplace mental health initiatives create a median $1.62 in ROI per dollar spent, with the median annual ROI rising to $2.18 per dollar spent when mental health initiatives remain in place for at least 3 years. 

Deloitte’s report also notes that at Bell Canada, investing in workplace mental health initiatives produced an ROI of $4.10 per $1 spent by reducing short-term disability claims, increasing productivity, and preventing recurrence or relapse of mental illness.

Quite simply: Instituting long-term workplace mental health support initiatives is one of the best things your firm can do to increase revenue and facilitate peak performance among staff.

In order to be effective, workplace mental health initiatives need to go farther than giving out stress balls or offering a lunch-hour yoga program. Instead, there are other, more impactful ways to create a workplace culture conducive to mental health and keep your team performing at their best.

In Part 2 of our mental health series, we discuss some practical steps your firm can take to boost your team’s mental health that go beyond lip service. Check back next week for a set of four strategies that can mitigate mental illness time-loss incidents, improve staff wellness and morale, and boost productivity.

Mental illness is hard. If you or someone you know is having an immediate mental health crisis or considering self-harm, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Want to make a difference? Your firm can help support mental health initiatives in Canada by donating to the Canadian Mental Health Association.



  • Nemeth S. “Addressing the elephant in the legal profession: The lawyer’s struggle with mental health.” Saskatchewan Law Review. Published online July 9, 2019. 
  • Abramson L. “The only job with an industry devoted to helping people quit.” The Atlantic. Published online July 29, 2014.
  • Pan Z et al. “Cognitive impairment in major depressive disorder.” CNS Spectrums, vol. 24 no. 1 (February 2019): 22-29.

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