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Talking About Mental Health: Is It “Workplace Appropriate”?


Sure, talking about mental health is important… But surely there must be boundaries within a workplace environment, right?

Stigma – the negative stereotype that all too often accompanies mental illness, frequently leading to prejudice and discrimination – is the number one barrier to positive mental health in Canada. In other words, it’s the most commonly cited reason that those who are struggling don’t reach out for help, and also holds others back from offering support when they recognize indicators someone might be going through a hard time. For many years talking about mental health was taboo. It was seen as an embarrassing topic and a private issue – much too sensitive and personal to make mention of at work. “Check your problems at the door” was a commonly-held mentality and until relatively recently, talking about mental health was not something that happened in most workplaces.

Thankfully, we’re moving beyond that. Canadian labour laws recognize mental health problems as just that: health problems. Therefore, the same rules apply to mental health conditions as to physical ones when it comes to the responsibilities of employers. This means an employer is legally obligated to make reasonable accommodations to job tasks and the like in effort to support a struggling employee, and that it’s unlawful for an employee to be penalized for their mental health issue. All of this is a great start. We’re definitely heading in the right direction.

But we’ve still got a long way to come.

We need to get past the idea that mental health is an uncomfortable topic. Would you be embarrassed to admit to a co-worker or your manager that you once broke your arm and required medical attention, or that you live with diabetes? Probably not. Until every member of the work force is in genuine agreement that they’d be equally comfortable discussing having had a panic attack or living with chronic depression, we’ve got more work to do on eradicating stigma. A truly mentally healthy workplace is a supportive environment where every individual understands that mental health is something we all have, that sometimes we hit bumps in the road and could use a hand with it and that struggling with one’s mental health is not a weakness, character flaw or a testament to one’s ability to do their job. Because the average Canadian spends more waking hours at work than anywhere else, workplace must be prepared to support the mental health of their employees, plain and simple.

So what can we do about it?

If you’re a leader, acknowledge in your words AND ACTIONS that mental health is real. Lead by example. If, as a manager, I wax poetic to my team that work-life balance is important but I’m not practising what I preach, my words aren’t going to be taken seriously. Be consistent. Set the tone that talking about mental health and reaching out for help when needed is ok, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s not a career-dampener. Reiterate the existence of workplace supports like the E.F.A.P. (Employee and Family Assistance Program) if your workplace has one, and be sure your team members know they can come to you for support. You might also consider investing in training to understand the ins and outs of mental health in the workplace (like THIS half-day seminar). Encourage anyone who’s inclined to champion mental health. For example, an employee who’s been vocal about their own struggles or having benefited from using the E.F.A.P. – amplifying that person’s voice holds tremendous benefits, as research tells us employees are more likely to talk to a peer about their mental health challenges instead of or before going to H.R. or management for help. With that in mind, make sure at least some of your team members have training to handle these conversations sensitively, appropriately and effectively by giving them access to professional development like the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mental Health First Aid training program (find a course near you HERE). Do employees take physical first aid/CPR training to ensure a physically safe and healthy work environment? Mental health should be looked at no differently.

If you notice changes in an employee’s behaviour or attitude, don’t take it lightly or assume it’s probably nothing. There are many different ways we talk ourselves out of acknowledging or inquiring about suspected signs of distress and most of them stem from our own discomfort in talking about mental health. “Is everything ok? You haven’t seemed yourself lately,” is a great way to start the conversation. Because of stigma a person might not feel comfortable opening up right away. They might make a joke or brush off your question. Remember that if it felt a little bit awkward for you to bring it up, that person is probably experiencing a hundred times more discomfort considering sharing that they’re struggling. Be patient. If a person’s not comfortable opening up don’t force it, but do let them know if they ever want to talk about it you’re happy to chat. It also doesn’t hurt to check back periodically, especially if you notice further signs. “I’ve been thinking of you,” you might say. “My door is always open and if you ever need to get anything off you’re chest I’d be glad to help.”

Talking about mental health at work might feel uncomfortable at first, but over time, with consistency and as more and more of these conversations happen, it definitely gets easier. The end goal is a culture where anyone who’s having a hard time has access to help and anyone who’s able to offer help is at ease doing so. Isn’t that a place we’d all love to work?

Thanks for tuning in, and see you next week!

Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.

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