We often think of chronic disease as a physical condition – diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, cancer and asthma come to mind. But mental health conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders, can at times also be chronic and significantly impact the lives of those living with these conditions – as well as society at large.

How significant is this impact? In the workplace, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, mental illness accounts for about 30% of all long-term disability claims, and the overall  burden of mental illness on the Canadian economy exceeds $50 billion annually (including health care costs and lost productivity). What is more important, mental illness can lead to a considerable reduction in the quality of life for millions of Canadians and their families.

The costly mental-physical link

Adding to these impacts is “comorbidity,” the coexistence of 2 or more conditions. In particular, there is a strong link between chronic physical illness and poor mental health. According to a report by the Canadian Mental Health Association:

  1. People who report symptoms of depression also report experiencing 3 times as many chronic physical conditions as the general population.
  2. People with chronic physical conditions have twice the likelihood of experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder when compared to those without a chronic physical condition.

The impact of comorbidity on employees and on the workplace is significant. Workers with comorbid mental health and physical health conditions have been found to have 2 to 5 times the likelihood of functional disability and absence from work, according to findings from the UK National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey

Take action at work

The prevalence and impact of chronic conditions in the workplace are often hidden. The 2016 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey found that 59% of employees with a health benefits plan report living with at least 1 chronic condition, but when employers were asked about the prevalence of chronic conditions in their workplace, they estimated that just 32% of their employees were affected.

This gap in awareness means that many employers are greatly underestimating the impact of chronic disease on their workplaces – the economic impact to their organizations and most important, the personal impact on their employees. The good news is that employer actions can play a key role in reducing these costs through prevention. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that about 50% of all cancers can be prevented through healthy living and policies designed to protect our health. And the World Health Organization states that 80% of cardiovascular-related mortality is preventable. Research has also established that healthy lifestyle changes can not only help prevent and manage chronic physical health conditions – they can also provide significant support for good mental health.

Employers can play a key role in helping employees make healthy lifestyle changes when a chronic illness occurs. Through workplace wellness programs and comprehensive mental and physical health supports and strategies, employers can cultivate a strong organizational culture of health and potentially reduce the impact of both mental and physical chronic illness.