The Health Case

Mental Illness is everyone’s concern

Regardless of the kind of work you do or where you are on the organizational food chain, the toughest part of your job is likely not the work itself. Chances are your greatest challenge is keeping yourself emotionally healthy and engaged, and maintaining a balanced attitude towards others around you.

When we come to work, we bring all aspects of ourselves – the things we’re thinking of or experiencing that bring us sadness or joy, anguish or pleasure. Between our emotional ups and downs, our individual family pressures, and the daily stresses of our job, managing our own mental health – and coping with the mental health challenges of others – can be a daily challenge.

The Canadian stats show that at least 20 per cent of the population will have a mental illness sometime in their life. That tells only one part of the story. That one-in-five stat identifies only those with a diagnosable illness, and only those who have sought out medical help. The stat doesn’t reflect the whole picture. You know from your own experience of being in workplaces that there are many others who display a host of behaviours that reflect poor mental health. The effects can often leave people feeling confused, hurt or shut down. Dealing with different kinds of health issues is never a simple or straightforward matter.

We need to create work environments that are emotionally safe and healthy – places where we can speak, be heard, feel respected, and talk openly about mental health issues. Such healthy environments encourage people to have a high level of awareness about how their words and actions are affecting others. Such supportive environments also encourage people in understanding each other’s needs, interests and points of view.

Awareness, understanding and knowledge of mental health issues are key to moving towards achieving health and well-being for all concerned – you, others in the workplace, and the organization.

Addressing issues so everyone succeeds

Depression, anxiety, and burnout are common ailments in the workplace, yet they are often overlooked, underestimated and dismissed. Most people would agree that it’s easier to deal with someone’s physical injury or illness than a mental one.

Mental health issues present significant workplace challenges – both for those who have the mental health issue and for those who work alongside someone who is struggling. Many also carry the fear of being stigmatized or shamed. In many workplaces, there is both a lack of understanding about mental illness and a lack of supportive resources.

Addressing mental health issues at work can be tough. It’s not always clear who’s struggling. Often those who struggle are not sick enough to stay at home yet not well enough to be fully engaged at work. They show up – present in body but not in spirit. Their behaviour may be difficult. It’s not always clear how to respond — professionally or personally.

Whether you’re dealing with someone’s mental illness in the workplace from the perspective of a leader or a colleague, the question remains: how can mental health issues be addressed so that everyone succeeds, and everyone is treated with respect, and is given the support they need?

Contradictions in perceptions between staff and management

According to recent surveys, there is a considerable difference in perceptions about the effectiveness and awareness between managers and employees, and about the behaviour and perceived behaviour of support.

Only 33 per cent of managers report having had any training in mental health. Yet 81 per cent report they are comfortable talking to employees. Employees report a different perception. Less than 30 per cent of employees believe managers are knowledgeable, and more than a third of those surveyed would not feel comfortable talking to their manager.

In recent studies, managers report wanting more information and strategies about how to engage and support employees, and want better information about the boundaries around privacy and confidentiality with personal and medical information. Knowing the legalities around privacy and confidentiality is one thing; knowing how to effectively communicate and create an emotionally safe environment of respect is another.

Managers may feel paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing or infringing on someone’s privacy, and risking creating a perception of lack of concern. The more informed you are about your organization’s policies and programs, about the possibilities of mental health issues, and the more aware you are of how your words and actions are being perceived, the more effective will be your handling of situations that arise.

Dealing with key concern: stigma

According to a recent survey of over 1,000 Canadian workers, 27 per cent of employees said that if they faced a mental health issue or problem at work and revealed it to others, they could lose their chances for promotion or their job. Some people felt guilty for being away from work; others got a ‘cold shoulder’ when they finally returned. In fact, only half of the people surveyed felt supported in their return to work at all.

The employees surveyed felt employers needed more up-to-date information on issues related to mental health. They needed more reliable resources, and most of all, they urged employers to become more open-minded, supportive and compassionate.

In spite of employees feeling that their bosses weren’t tuned into their mental health, they still reported that would be more likely to confide in their managers than in their colleagues at work. The fear of stigma is at the root of this. Those struggling with mental health issues fear being labeled, feared, or reduced in status – professionally or personally.

Stigma, shame and solutions

Shame is something we rarely talk about openly in our culture. How we feel about shame keeps us ‘stuck’ in how we accept or reject mental health issues, and the social stigma of classifying people that goes with it. Stigma lies at the heart of why we resist giving wholehearted support to building and maintaining mental health in our workplaces.

Stigma is a deep-seated sentiment of prejudice that’s expressed in all kinds of obvious and not so obvious ways. Most often, stigma comes across as demeaning comments or behaviour that blames or shames someone because of an illness that is not understood. Many people hold false beliefs and fears about others who have a mental illness, assuming that they are likely to be unproductive, unreliable, violent or unable to handle workplace pressures.

Attitudes toward mental health and mental illness make a big difference for all employees but especially for those experiencing mental health issues. The quality of an organization’s culture and how it treats its employees, comes across in lots of ways: its style of communication, the resources available, the policies and programs, and the attitudes and behaviours modeled by both the leadership and the staff. The challenge of all workplaces is to create a supportive, healthy, emotionally safe work environment. This begins with awareness of how people treat each other. Those with mental illness, like those with physical illness, needs to be heard, understood, accommodated as necessary, and treated with respect.

The more an organization instills a sense of respect in its core values, behaviours and attitudes, the healthier, more productive and happier will be the workers and the workplace. Mental illness is indeed everyone’s concern.

Strategies for providing support in the workplace

One of the most effective ways to begin changing the culture of an organization into becoming more supportive is to change the nature of the conversations about mental health. This means changing the conversations both at the water cooler and in the board room.

There are lots of reasons leaders site for not supporting mental health: “It’s too expensive.” “It’s not my responsibility.” “I don’t know what to do;” “It’s too personal – I can’t be infringing on people’s privacy;” “People should just behave better.”

One of the most effective things an employer can do to is to build a supportive culture from the ground up. The idea is to create a psychologically safe workplace that is open to employees to express themselves and invites them to talk about their mental and physical health issues – to their management and their colleagues.

How you can take action in your organization as a leader

There is a role for everyone in your organization to contribute to creating an environment of health and wellness. Identify a champion and begin the conversation. Be part of the solution!

  • Focus on education and communication to reduce fear, stigma and discrimination
  • Ensure the organizational culture is conducive to supporting employees’ mental health
  • Encourage senior executives to show demonstrable leadership around mental health

Build managers’ capacity to support employees by providing the tools and training required in their role. How you can take action in your organization as an employee

Every employee has a role to play in creating a socially supportive culture, without support or involvement from management. Consider the following questions:

  • Is social support consistent for everyone on my team?
  • If yes, what can I do to sustain it?
  • If not, what can I do to create it?
  • How can I engage my colleagues toward demonstrating in words and actions that every member on the team is equally valued and included?
  • How can I contribute to the organization in a way that emphasizes and supports a healthy culture?
  • What can I do every day to ensure that I’m modeling the behaviour of health and wellness?
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