Health and Safety
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By Linda Lewis-Dal, GoodLife Workplace Wellness Program


Let's face it... we all have a bad day from time to time. But when bad days string together and become chronic, serious physical and psychological side effects can negatively impact our work performance and relationships with others.

Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety cost Canadian workplaces over $50 billion a year in lost productivity, benefits costs, disability leaves, presenteeism and absenteeism, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).


This figure is estimated to be understated as employees suffering from a mental illness are often doing so alone – so great is the fear of stigma surrounding mental illness and mental disorders. While one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in any given year, that number is likely closer to one in three if full disclosure were made.


In fact, the Conference Board of Canada (2002) suggests that 51 per cent of employees keep quiet about their mental illness. Consider for a moment your own workplace. If one in five of your workforce is suffering a mental illness, what is that costing your company in lost productivity? What are you doing to build awareness of workplace mental health in a manner that encourages mental health conversations as a normal part of doing business?


We have seen public figures such as Olympian Clara Hughes, actress Margot Kidder and Margaret Trudeau share their stories freely with the intention of breaking down stigma by starting the conversation. Pop culture is attempting the same with popularized television shows like Big Bang Theory, Glee and Homeland depicting characters both struggling and thriving with a mental illness diagnosis in an attempt to change our perception of mental illness. But is this public storytelling enough to break the cycle of stigma?


Well, it is certainly an important start and progress is being made... slowly.


How the workplace factors in


Unfortunately, negative mental health stereotypes still exist in the workplace, making it challenging for anyone suffering to get access to resources they desperately need. As a result, employers play a critical role in de-stigmatizing mental illness and performance managing with genuine concern and mental health in mind.

What are you doing to build awareness of workplace mental health in a manner that encourages mental health conversations as a normal part of doing business?

 People with mental illness might be our parents, our children, our neighbours, a co-worker or it might be us. Mental illness is not rare and can be severe or mild; it may have periods of relapse or recurrence but there are very successful treatments available to allow one to realize their potential and contribute productively at work, at home and in the community. After all, mental illness is a disease, not a fault of character.


Workplaces can either help or hinder people's performance, mental health and resilience. Tackling stigma and creating a psychologically safe workplace culture requires an integrated system; it is not an isolated program or a tick on a checklist of unrelated activities. Canada's National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, released January 2013 by MHCC, though voluntary, offers Canadian employers with a solid framework to assess, adapt, train and protect employees from psychological harm while promoting psychological wellbeing practices in the workplace.


Here are some examples of mental health stigma-fighting initiatives:


1. Policy and leadership

The most important component of any workplace mental health strategy is leadership endorsement and top-down management commitment. Establish a well-communicated zero-tolerance policy on all forms harassment and discrimination. Active endorsement and participation in mental health initiatives by management and unions sends a clear message to staff of the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace.


2. People management

Front-line managers or supervisors are often the first to be able to spot changes in an employee's behaviour or work habits. The manager is in a unique position to be able to observe, ask questions and support a team member who may be struggling. Yet, the workplace needs to provide them with the skills to be able to do this effectively. A Conference Board study (2011) reported that 44 per cent of managers have had no training in dealing with workplace mental health issues.


3. Train for awareness and skills

Help employees understand what mental illness looks like and how it might be experienced in the workplace. Train managers to be effective and confident in recognizing and addressing a potential mental health problem, without assessing or diagnosing. Managers should be accountable for promoting work-life balance – recognizing warning signs or performance indicators, understanding what mental health supports are available while respecting privacy and limiting organizational liability.


Mental health training can help them develop the confidence and skills to engage in what could be considered difficult or delicate conversations.


4. Early intervention

Don’t delay reacting to a workplace indicator that may identify an employee at risk of a potential mental health problem. Don't engage in stigma-supporting conversations and be sure to immediately address any stigma-supporting comments of others. Do bring the conversation about mental health into team meetings as a way to normalize and socialize mental health as being as important as physical health in assuring a safe and healthy workplace.


Small interventions early on can help prevent long-term negative effects of mental illness costs to your bottom line. Canadian companies must commit to elevating and addressing mental health and safety in the same degree of importance that physical health and safety resides in workplace policies, practices, performance management and workplace wellness systems. Only then can workplace stigma be eradicated.

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