“Presenteeism” (the cost of lost productivity from working while ill) is attracting growing attention. A recent BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling illustrated the problem when it upheld the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibition on discrimination based on mental disability.
Games giant Electronic Arts was forced to pay a large settlement to a woman fired for depression-related presenteeism. Janie Toivanen was a long time employee with a track record of superior performance reviews. She developed clinical depression and over time the illness deteriorated to the point nobody wanted her in their workgroup. “Crying or anger,” was how a management memo described her reactions to ordinary requests; they didn’t know how to deal with her nor did she ask for help. No longer capable or amiable, she was viewed as a liability and EA readily admitted to the court that it had terminated her because of negative emotions and behaviour that stemmed from the illness.
Alienating co-workers, exasperating supervisors, and worsening her depression, ultimately the cost of presenteeism and stigma in this instance was pegged at close to $150,000 CAD.
Douglas Coupland’s novel jPod, about a group of video game developers working at Electronic Arts in Vancouver, described the workplace as ridiculously pampered. Documents filed in court indicate that EA offers onsite masseurs, aesthetics services, gourmet food including an ice cream bar, valet and dry cleaning service and more to their employees – what they don’t offer, though, is compassion. In a “competitive edge” environment described by one manager as “Mach 3,” perks like valet services compensate for long, dedicated hours. With no time to do laundry or go out for lunch, flexibility for mental health problems is lacking. Toivanen was luckier than most, in that she had access to universal and extended health care, and could have taken leave as her doctor recommended. Instead, the belief it would hurt her career led her to neglect her own health and not divulge the mental illness.
Such is life in some businesses. People are driven to perform and inconvenient hindrances like illness and children mean being discarded. Stigma from mental illness is another handicap. It’d be nice to think that this ruling would serve to prevent similar situations in corporate cultures, but the cynic in me suspects EA were glad to simply write a cheque, no matter how large, to rid themselves of the problem instead of dealing with it.
(To be fair, an EA spokesperson did issue the statement, “We learn from our mistakes and will continue to adapt best practices for our employees.”)
In a lovely bit of irony, Vancouver hosts the annual cutting-edge Bottom Line Conference for managers and employers, on mental health in the workplace. This year’s event on the theme Mental Illness in the Workplace: The Elephant in the Room takes place March 7.