Mental health at work: Creating safe workplaces
Published Wednesday, February 8, 2012 6:30AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:23AM EDT
There are days when Michael Bach can't bear the thought of sitting in a closed-door meeting with his colleagues. Or anyone, for that matter.
It isn't a reflection of how he feels about his co-workers, or whether he enjoys his job. As KPMG's National Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Bach is no longer afraid to admit he lives -- and works -- with depression.
By sharing his struggle, Bach finds he's able to diminish its power over his daily life.
"As long as we treat this like a dirty little secret, it will be a dirty little secret," he said.
Still, many employed Canadians are reluctant to bring mental health issues up in the workplace, according to a 2011 Conference Board of Canada survey.
More than half of 1,010 respondents feared that sharing a mental health problem would negatively affect their opportunities for promotion. Thirty-eight per cent felt disclosure would hinder their success.
It's unclear whether that hesitancy is due to employees feeling unsafe in their individual workplaces, perceived social stigma, or both. Whatever the case, Bach says it's critical for employers to open up some sort of dialogue about mental health.
"In a lot of organizations that can be an enormous first step," he said, speaking in a phone interview from Toronto.
In his role at KPMG, an audit and tax advisory services firm, Bach has encouraged managers to start paying more attention to their employees. That means being on the lookout for any behavioural changes and understanding a person's capabilities.
"In large part, we simply started talking about mental health in the workplace," said Bach who kept his own depression under wraps for nearly 20 years.
As part of KPMG's Employee Assistance Program (EAP), the firm has various speakers visit their Toronto offices to talk to workers about issues such as mental health and stress management.
Bach says the lectures, which are usually held in a space that can accommodate about 225 employees, are almost always sold out. The demand, he believes, is indicative of a growing interest in mental health.
While employees may not be forthcoming, absentee numbers reveal the gravity of the issue. On any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental illness, according to 2010 labour data calculated by Statistics Canada.
‘There's no magic bullet here'
"Mental health is and isn't visible," said Graham Lowe, a workplace consultant and author of Creating Healthy Organizations.
For instance, he notes that spikes in employee anti-depressant use or higher absence rates could hint that a manager is making unreasonable demands or failing to protect the mental wellbeing of his or her employees.
Still, even this approach isn't fail-safe. Not all mental illnesses result in leaves of absence and only 43 per cent of employees with mental health issues make use of resources available to them in the workplace, according to a Conference Board study.
So, how does an employer reach out to those who suffer in silence? Start by building a psychologically safe workplace for everyone, Lowe suggests.
"There's no magic bullet here," he notes. "What's important is that managers consider solutions that really fit the needs and the needs and the context of the organization."
Encouraging employees to avail of vacation days and lunch breaks, allowing desk workers to telecommute sometimes, asking employees about how they're coping with the workload; these are all ways Lowe says a workplace can become healthier.
Flexible work arrangements and above-average workplace communication feature prominently on Eluta.ca's most recent list of Canada's top 100 employers, which are ranked by atmosphere, benefits and more. The list is compiled annually by Eluta, a search engine exclusive to job opportunities.
For his part, Lowe also recommends that managers hire a third party to conduct anonymous employee surveys, which gives workers a way to communicate without the fear of stigmatization.
"These surveys get at aspects of the overall work environment that influence things like stress and workplace balance, which are huge when it comes to your sense of well-being at the end of the day," said Lowe.
Although biology plays a significant role in mental illness, research shows that chronic stress can exacerbate conditions such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.
In 2002 alone, the majority (71 per cent) of 25- to 64-year-old Canadians who reported having a major depressive episode were employed, according to that year's Canadian Community Health Survey.
Preventing meltdowns with ‘basic maintenance'
That apparent link between workplace conditions and mental illness prompted Martin Shain to create the Neighbour@Work Centre, a consulting and research organization devoted to on-the-job mental health.
"I think so much of the stress we experience at work arises from misunderstanding and miscommunication," he said.
Part of the problem, he says, is that managers aren't getting to know their employees. For instance, if a boss isn't aware that a worker is struggling to care for an elderly parent at home, they may interpret that person's lateness or exhaustion as laziness.
"It's the failure to do that sort of very basic maintenance that leads to workplace meltdowns sometimes," he said in a phone interview from Caledon, Ont.
Another problem Shain has identified is "pushing in the dark," or when a manager expects too much of an employee for too long. He notes that in an unhealthy workplace an employee may be too afraid to speak up about excessive demands.
Back in Toronto, Bach still remembers the day he decided to tell his boss about his depression, a condition he was diagnosed with at age 20.
"I was the textbook case where I didn't want to talk about my depression, I didn't want to be seen as weak," he said.
During a particularly rough week struggling with a new medication, Bach finally decided to open up in a meeting with his manager.
"It really felt like a confession," he said. "She was incredibly supportive and we talked about what that meant and what I needed from her."
Mere acknowledgement, says Bach, may be the first step in creating a workplace that protects the mental health of its employees.
"The most common mistake employees and managers make is pretending mental health issues just aren't there."
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