Building a mentally supportive workplace

“When you live with anxiety or another mental illness, it doesn’t know when you’re at work,” says Courtney Taylor, who works at a publishing company in Toronto.

Ultimately, Ms. Taylor felt she didn’t have a choice about whether to disclose her condition to her close co-workers. When she experiences a panic attack, she now feels comfortable asking a colleague to go outside with her to help her catch her breath. “We spend most of our time at work, and these are the people you’re going to turn to the most,” she says. “I was lucky that the people I’ve turned to – co-workers, managers and HR – were understanding and supportive. I know that not everyone has that experience.”

The more we can provide practical and proven solutions, the less likely we’ll see stigma and discrimination in the workplace.
— Jeff Moat President of Partners for Mental Health

Richelle Heck, the HRPD advisor of programs at PCL Constructors Inc., is working to help build a similarly supportive environment on a very large scale. PCL, a Partners for Mental Health supporter and Not Myself Today participant, is currently launching its fourth annual campaign during Mental Health Week.

“We needed ways to advance our health and wellness programs, specifically looking at mental health, and we wanted to find a way to unify employees across the country and the company,” she says. “Not Myself Today presented a great opportunity to have one campaign that every employee in Canada would get to be a part of, but that could also be different in each city.”

One of the campaign objectives is ensuring that managers understand the critical importance of their role and have the support they need, she explains. “It’s all about relationships and relationship building – knowing what’s appropriate, when to ask questions, what should be done when someone does come to them, how to address issues, and how to encourage conversations and openness to make sure everyone feels included and comfortable in their working group.”

Partners for Mental Health (PFMH) designed Not Myself Today with three primary aims: providing employers and employees with the tools and resources to better understand mental health, to challenge stigma, and to create safer, more inclusive work environments.

“We know that stigma is fear based, and we fear what we don’t understand,” says Jeff Moat, PFMH’s president. “The more we can provide practical and proven solutions, the less likely we’ll see stigma and discrimination in the workplace.

“It’s one of the last social taboos of our time. We want to help create environments where mental illness is recognized for what it is, an illness that should be talked about and treated like any other illness, not unlike heart disease or cancer.”

In the last five years, research has resoundingly proven that – in addition to it being the right thing to do from the perspective of social responsibility and compassion – there is a strong business case to be made for investing in mental health, says Mr. Moat. “One international study in particular shows that for every dollar invested in a mental health initiative, the return is $2.30. That takes the form of better productivity, less absenteeism and lower disability costs.”

The annual Not Myself Today campaigns by Partners for Mental Health, alongside other initiatives such as Bell’s Let’s Talk and individuals who have shared their personal stories, has helped to normalize the conversation, he says. “Most of us were raised not to talk about these issues, so first and foremost, it’s about creating a safe, non-threatening space to start to have an honest dialogue about the fact that most of us really don’t know much about this, and that’s okay. We can learn together.”

But that is only the first step, says Mr. Moat. “Our feeling right from the beginning, and the view of our founding chairman, the Honourable Michael Kirby, is that awareness alone isn’t enough. As an organization, we see our role as mobilizing the grassroots to become involved and make that personal connection to the cause, and to do something tangible to drive change.”

Creating healthier work environments is a responsibility shared between the employer and the employee, he says. “Each year, our initiative changes in response to our evaluations of previous campaigns. This year, one of our aims is to create even more change agents, empowering employees and people managers to improve mental health at work. Every action counts, no matter how big or small.”

Each person in the workplace has an important role to play in creating a mentally healthy workplace, stresses Ms. Taylor, who is now the co-chair of the Partners for Mental Health Toronto Community Action Team. “It’s hard for people to understand if they haven’t lived it, but I think the most important thing is to be open, willing to listen and non-judgmental. You don’t have to understand – being willing to try, or to just be with that person if that’s what they need, can really make a huge difference.”

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