• James

Supporting Workers with Mental Illness

It's estimated that one in every five people will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.

The economic cost of mental health problems to Canada is at least $50 billion per year. This represents 2.8% of Canada’s 2011 gross domestic product.

Health care, social services and income support costs make up the biggest proportion of these costs. But it also cost business more than $6 billion in lost productivity (from absenteeism, pre- senteeism and turnover) in 2011. (my italics)

Managing a worker experiencing mental health issues in the workplace is a huge challenge. And I say this as the person who was the one struggling. As I went through the whole process of reporting my disability, seeking accommodation and determining what the workplace could do to help me continue to be productive, I could see that it was no fun for management.

The impact of my depression on my ability to work is quite different from someone who may require physical accommodations. Providing assistive devices and making changes to built environments to support someone’s mobility are comparatively easy – in most cases, it’s a question of cost.

My specific challenge was that on many days, I was too fatigued to get up and report to work. If I did make it into work one day, I couldn’t guarantee that I would be there tomorrow. At the time, my workplace had started instituting work-from-home procedures. Most of us had a laptop and we started by taking one day to work from home. By the time I left, most people had already ramped up to a few days out of the week.

We tried to take advantage of me having a laptop at home. But even if the computer was just a few feet away from me on a desk, there were days when I simply did not have the strength to reach over and start it up.

In short, my bosses had to deal with me being entirely unpredictable when it came to being able to work in the office or from home. Even though the idea of working from home sounded easier, I preferred to try to go into the office. I felt that that would give me structure, provide me with some company from colleagues and force me to get up at the same time every day.

My union rep and I attended many meetings with management to come up with ideas and plans. Our ideas would play out for two or three weeks, but invariably, they didn’t work.

The most frustrating part, I think for both sides, was that once I was present, I could dig in and do my job, and do it well. The depression had no impact on my skills and abilities. When I first started this last job, I was an excellent worker. My experience allowed me to grasp the challenges of the projects I was charged with and I could turn around writing assignments quickly and accurately. Socially in the office, I was funny and popular, and was regarded as an emerging leader. I was able to make connections easily across teams. I had solid performance reviews in the early years.

As I mentioned previously, the timing was also difficult as our director who had been our boss for about seven years and was well-liked and well-regarded was unceremoniously let go by senior execs. That seemed to set off a chain of events including going through several managers who supervised me and my team. It was a bit frustrating to have to retell a new manager my limitations and needs as they try to find a new way to accommodate me. With some managers, I felt completely supported - they communicated to me that they had my back and whatever challenges came up, we would handle them. While with others, I felt they could have shown a little more humanity.

I don’t know if we eventually could have found a perfect solution. Hell, I think all of us would have settled for half a solution. Ironically, because it was a unionized workplace (which is supposed to protect workers), we were not able to explore job-sharing options, or even reduced hours, since our contracts didn't have that flexibility.

From my experience, the following is what I feel needs to happen if we’re going to support our workers who are going through mental health crises.

1. Quite simply, companies have to stop paying lip-service in this area. Sure, there is way more awareness about the importance of mental health. We mark Bell’s Let’s Talk Day each year and make donations to mental health causes. We consider mental health when we design programs and projects for the end user. We’re all more comfortable talking about mental health, but it seems only in abstract terms. Because when it becomes personal, the conversation suddenly has to happen behind closed doors.

Why is this? Depression is an illness. For me, I don't think it's any different to talk about than if I had the flu. Everyone would be able to talk about it and understand. As mental illness takes a toll on more and more people, we need to normalize it.

When all of this was going on, I disclosed my depression to various co-workers in varying degrees of detail. The colleague who used to take over my files when I was away, I felt certainly deserved to know what was going on with me. He probably knew the most in terms of how depression can hit me and what limits I have when it does.

But workplaces and managers default to the position that anything personal would be… well, personal (despite ongoing efforts and money spent on team-building exercises on day retreats and such). I dunno… if I knew one of my colleagues was going through a very tough divorce for example, I’d want to know how I could help as a friend and also as a colleague if the need should arise.

2. Leadership in this area has to come from the top. A manager's job is to get the best of their employees by providing opportunities for training, growth and encouraging top performance. But I would wager many are are a loss when it comes to behavioural health. In one American survey, companies saw a need to re-educate managers to help them have productive conversations and to understand where the line is drawn between privacy and empathy.

Some employers also reported designating a leader in mental health, whose responsibilities would include assessing benefits, ensuring access to treatment, monitoring employees’ well-being and managing workplace programs related to behavioural health.

This approach seems to be a wholistic one with a designated lead when it comes to mental health issues. This is someone who would have experience in finding accommodation that has nothing to do with the built environment, where a physical challenge may exist.

I, for one, was rather surprised that when we started documenting my case, our division had to get the expertise of HR folks responsible for the whole company. I didn’t know these people, nor exactly what their role was. They mostly outlined the procedure of requesting an accommodation, filling in paperwork, getting doctors’ notes, etc., etc.

Our meetings themselves were run almost like a negotiation. "Here's what we're willing to offer James to help him improve his attendance." Then my union rep and I would look at their proposal, evaluate and counter if necessary. There has to be a better way to run these meetings when the goal is the same - to get a high-performing worker back to a place in their health that they can perform again.

No doubt, there has been some work in this area. The Mental Health Commission of Canada recently announced it's partnering with Excellence Canada to dramatically increase the number of employers adopting the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. This is a standard that was developed some years ago, and is a set of guidelines to help organizations promote mental health at work. Since this is a proactive measure - which I applaud - it does not address the issue of what to do with a worker already dealing with mental health problems.

I believe the onus is on the workplace to lead. If I had to educate myself about depression after I was diagnosed, someone not suffering from its effects likely won't have the faintest clue as to how to handle someone like me. What we need is in-depth training for managers on how to work with someone who is having trouble attending work because of mental health reasons. Managers need to know that "This is not about you. This is about how you, as a manger, can step up and help your employee. Keep in mind that depression is an illness."

Just the other day, an HR person I have to check-in with occasionally spent an entire 10 minutes suggesting to me over the phone what I could do to have more good days... as if I, along with oh, at least two psychologists, three psychiatrists, my family doctor, three social workers/counsellors and scores of friends hadn't tried her suggestion already. I'm sure she had the best of intentions, but without proper training, she was actually minimizing the work I have done in the last 15 years or so in trying to get better. That is just one example of someone whose job it is to have some knowledge and understanding of circumstances that prevent someone from working.

Interested parties need to work together to close the schism between corporate interests and the people looking after the interests of your worker. Otherwise, we will continue to lose bright people along the way.

Do you have any experiences to share about how mental illness affected you in the workplace? Did you have a manage a worker struggling with mental illness? Please share your story, any comments or questions in the comment section below!


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