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 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. Dealing with our emotional ups and downs 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 reflect different points of view.

Addressing issues so everyone succeeds

Depression, anxiety, and dismissed. Most people would agree that it’s easier to deal with someone’s physical injury or illness than a mental one.

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 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 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 creating an emotionally safe environment of mutual respect.

Managers may feel paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing or infringing on someone’s privacy, as well as 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 compassion.

In spite of employees feeling that their bosses weren’t tuned into their mental health, they still reported that they 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.

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 cite 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 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.

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 begin the conversation. Be part of the solution!

  • Focus on education about 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 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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