New tool strives to cre­ate health­ier work­places

Cal­cu­la­tor can be used to pre­dict, pre­vent em­ployee de­pres­sion

Ottawa Citizen - - THE ROYAL -

It was in a pe­di­a­tri­cian’s of­fice fol­low­ing the birth of his daugh­ter that Dr. JianLi Wang was first in­spired to de­velop a tool that could pre­dict peo­ple’s risk of de­vel­op­ing de­pres­sion.

It may seem like a pe­cu­liar jump to ac­tion, but for Wang, a men­tal health re­searcher, it dawned on him that while we en­gage in count­less check­ups and tests re­lated to our phys­i­cal health over the course of our lives (start­ing from birth) to pre­vent us from get­ting sick, the same strate­gies are not in place when it comes to men­tal ill­ness.

“When my daugh­ter was born, fol­low-ups with our fam­ily doc­tor let us know whether things like her height and weight were on track, and whether she was grow­ing in a nor­mal way,” said Wang.

“It made me re­al­ize that while we en­gage in sim­i­lar tests as adults to see if we are at risk for things like heart dis­ease or di­a­betes, there isn’t a par­al­lel way to eval­u­ate our per­sonal risk for de­pres­sion.”

In 2008, through a Cana­dian In­sti­tutes of Health Re­search grant, Wang de­vel­oped the first-ever risk cal­cu­la­tor of its kind in Canada, which es­ti­mates per­sonal prob­a­bil­ity of hav­ing a ma­jor de­pres­sive episode in the next four years, by ask­ing ques­tions re­lated to age, fam­ily history, on­go­ing neg­a­tive life events and child­hood trauma.

The tool also in­forms peo­ple how their level of risk com­pares to the gen­eral Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion.

The risk cal­cu­la­tor was launched on­line in 2013, and has since been used over 80,000 times.

Now, as direc­tor of the new Work and Men­tal Health Re­search Unit at The Royal’s In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health Re­search, af­fil­i­ated with the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa, Wang has been work­ing on adapt­ing his risk cal­cu­la­tor tool for or­ga­ni­za­tional use.

This new tool tailored for em­ploy­ers in­cludes pre­dic­tors of de­pres­sion as they re­late to the work­place, such as job stress, work/fam­ily con­flicts, and job per­for­mance. By en­abling em­ploy­ers to eval­u­ate how many of their em­ploy­ees will have de­pres­sive and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders in the com­ing years, said Wang, or­ga­ni­za­tions could bet­ter en­sure that the right poli­cies and re­sources are in place to keep work­ers healthy.

As it stands, men­tal ill­ness — and de­pres­sion in par­tic­u­lar — has a ma­jor im­pact on the Cana­dian work­force and econ­omy.

Each week, 500,000 Cana­di­ans do not go to work due to men­tal health-re­lated is­sues.

Wang said the huge fi­nan­cial and so­cial bur­den and level of lost pro­duc­tiv­ity that men­tal ill­ness con­tin­ues to im­pose for work­places is finally caus­ing em­ploy­ers to sit up and take no­tice.

“When I started do­ing re­search in this area 15 years ago, there were no em­ploy­ers talk­ing about the men­tal health is­sues in their work­places,” he said.

“Now, more and more or­ga­ni­za­tions are wit­ness­ing and ac­knowl­edg­ing sig­nif­i­cant de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety among their em­ploy­ees, and are be­gin­ning to take ac­tion to im­ple­ment strate­gies to help keep their work­force well.”

Wang is cur­rently in the pre­lim­i­nary stages of launch­ing a demon­stra­tion study us­ing his risk cal­cu­la­tor at a large Ot­tawa-based or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In ad­di­tion to the ben­e­fits it can of­fer both em­ploy­ers and in­di­vid­u­als, Wang hopes that fu­ture it­er­a­tions of his risk cal­cu­la­tor could have wider pol­icy im­pli­ca­tions, as well.

On a larger scale, he said, this sort of in­for­ma­tion could help with pop­u­la­tion health plan­ning, by fore­cast­ing men­tal health trends across cities, provinces and/or na­tion­ally, and al­lo­cat­ing suf­fi­cient re­sources ac­cord­ingly.

Over­all, said Wang, re­search and strate­gies re­lated to the pre­ven­tion of de­pres­sion and other re­lated men­tal ill­nesses must con­tinue to move to the fore­front of our men­tal health care land­scape.

“When it comes to men­tal health, the prob­lem is that we are al­most al­ways re­ac­tive — peo­ple wait un­til they be­come de­pressed to see a doc­tor and get treated,” he said.

“How­ever, pre­ven­tion can be worth much more than treat­ment.”

PHOTO: MICHELLE VALBERG

Dr. JianLi Wang, a men­tal health re­searcher, de­vel­oped a risk cal­cu­la­tor that es­ti­mates per­sonal prob­a­bil­ity of hav­ing a ma­jor de­pres­sive episode in the next four years.

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