When I was at a hearing the other day an organizational people leader present loudly declared: “Everyone can go get their own lunches today, I am not dealing with feeding you crazy people”. She was referring to me. I have Celiac Disease and was cross-contaminated the day prior. “Crazy” means not “normal,” in a “bad” way. In this one thoughtless statement this “leader” both stigmatized my disease and mental illness. Insulting someone by using the word “crazy” should not being occurring in an awakened society.
Symptoms and circumstances of mental health issues vary and are not always obvious. Being aware of mental health and mental health issues as people leaders, which all employers are, and ensuring you have a healthy and safe work environment, are the first steps to reducing the risk, stigma and negative impact of mental health issues and increasing workplace participation of employees dealing with their challenges.
After recognizing the importance of a mentally healthy workplace, employers need to take be prepared to respond to mental health issues when they arise, as they will arise given approximately 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness throughout their lifetime, which negatively affects their ability to remain productive and focused on the job. According to the Mental Health Commission, on any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians are unable to go to work due to mental health problems.
Mental health involves a balancing of a person’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being and assists employees to deal with every day challenges. It requires care of bodies, emotions and thoughts. Depression and anxiety are common disorders but one of the biggest barriers for employees suffering from them is overcoming the stigma that such disorders equate to weakness. In fact, this stigma – it is the major reason why two-thirds of persons living with a mental illness do not seek help.
The difficulty? Employers often lack awareness of what they can, or should, do when dealing with mental illness. Even human resource specialists can feel ill-equipped to address the challenges presented by employees experiencing a mental health issue. This is because, at times the behaviour or poor performance to address is volatile, unexpected or uncomfortable and the employee is embarrassed or ashamed.
The solution? Remember, particularly when things get awkward: no one chooses to have a mental health issue; it is the mental health issue behind such behaviour, not the employee; the person may be capable of continuing to work with accommodations or support; and taking care of themselves and asking for help are signs of strength, not weakness or malingering. Resources such as https://letstalk.bell.ca/en/toolkit and informed employment counsel can be of assistance in having discussions around mental health and finding accommodation solutions.
Also, communicate positively with employees about mental health issues and keep the lines of communication open. Tips for doing so are:
Be kind. Pay attention to the words you use in the workplace. Create a culture of inclusion and discourage the use of the words “crazy”, “psycho” or “nuts” or avoid making fun of mental health issues. Mental health issues are the same as any other health issue and should be addressed as such.
Educate. Creating a culture of inclusion and mutual respect requires education and talking about mental health issues. Arming your employees with knowledge that permits awareness and sensitivity, including understanding the early warning signs and where to seek support, will reduce workplace barriers. As will talking about mental health issues and illnesses so that they are understood as common place and not “abnormal”.
Listen and “hear” your employees. Sometimes it is difficult for employees to precisely communicate the challenges they are experiencing. Clarify by asking: Is there anything I can do to help?”
Be a leader. Remind employees about self-care and self-compassion, particularly where you have a high stress, fast paced work environment. Stress affects everyone. Self-care and self-compassion can assist employees to avoid or lessen the severity or frequency of some mental health issues triggered by external influences such as persistent work stress. Remind employees of the benefits of regular exercise, getting regular sleep, sleeping for at least six hours a night and pacing themselves.
The end result should be – improved employee mental and physical health, lowered rates of absenteeism and increased levels of engagement and productivity. Nothing “crazy” about that.
Sheryl Johnson is a Partner at Sullivan Mahoney. She has extensive experience in representing clients in both the provincial and federal jurisdictions on all matters relating to employment, labour, administrative and employment related privacy, cannabis, Aboriginal and Indigenous law as well as in civil litigation. She is the author of Sexual Harassment in Canada: A Guide for Understanding and Prevention. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org