It's #BellLetsTalk Day, So Let's Start Talking
A well-liked coworker announces they have just been diagnosed with cancer. They had been feeling unwell, and trying to work through the symptoms, but finally after much coaxing sought medical treatment.
Their prognosis is positive, but the news is still a blow to the whole team. The coworker says they will work when they can, but may be away for days or weeks on medical leave during treatment and recovery.
They are overwhelmed by the show of support from their coworkers, who make genuine, heartfelt gestures at every turn. They head into the darkest periods of their illness knowing that they are a valued part of a warm and caring team.
Except the coworker wasn’t diagnosed with cancer.
The coworker was diagnosed with depression.
So what changes in the above scenario?
The answer should be: nothing. But that’s rarely the case.
The coworker is still going to be going through treatment, and will continue to work when they can. But in most cases that warmth and support vanishes like a puff of smoke.
There’s another key difference. The coworker may still be seriously ill, and the prognosis may not be as positive long term. Yet in most cases they’ve never said a word about it in the workplace, despite the fact that almost half of Canadians say work is the most stressful part of their day.
The numbers are startling. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, on any given week more than 500,000 Canadians will miss work due to mental illness. That’s a city larger than London, Ontario, out of work, every week. That level of illness costs the Canadian economy billions of dollars every year.
We all know someone who has been through, or is going through, cancer. Reports from the Commission state the same is true about mental illness. At one time it was taboo to talk about cancer, in the workplace or elsewhere. So why is it still taboo to talk about mental illness?
On #BellLetsTalk day, an annual campaign to raise both funds and awareness about mental health, it seemed appropriate for News From The Break Room to dive head first into the conversation.
Mental health is, of course, as serious a medical issue as any visible illness. While the signs may be minimal from the outside, the symptoms can be devastating. Individuals with mental health issues are protected under Ontario’s Human Rights Code from any discrimination based on disability in their work, and of course need to be accommodated as such.
Additionally, changes in the past few years in the Occupational Health and Safety Act have shone a bright light on workplace bullying and harassment, a major contributor to mental health issues in the workplace, and made employers responsible for developing strictly enforced policies to prevent their workers from such treatment.
Aside from the legislative provisions in place, there are countless policy measures that both employers, and even employees can put in place to help improve workplace mental health. Here are a few simple examples that take minimal time or effort to implement.
For employers, a few simple considerations can go a long way:
Keep Job Roles Clear. A common cause of employee stress is confusion over the exact nature or scope of an employee’s role. Duties of course may change over time (and a well-drafted employment contract will allow for this flexibility), but continuous upheaval will only lead to stress, confusion, and ultimately poor performance and burnout. Keeping workplace responsibilities clear and organized may be a tall order, but can help eliminate some of the chaos that causes so much unnecessary stress.
Manage Employee Workloads. In a competitive market, employers are constantly driven to keep achieving more with less, including fewer expenses and even fewer resources. Yet overworking employees to the point of burnout will only lead to illness and disability in the workforce, and in the end helps no one. Finding ways to manage workflow wherever possible will help to alleviate that unnecessary stress, and will benefit the team mentality overall.
Create a Dispute Resolution Process. Workplaces can feel much like family environments, and families under one roof naturally lead to conflict. Conflicts, both small and large, will naturally arise from time to time between team members. Having a policy to deal with conflicts within the workplace in a calm and balanced manner will help settle smaller matters smoothly, and hopefully calm tensions before emotions run high and tempers run even higher.
For employees, there are also a few tips to follow that can help improve workplace mental health across the board:
Keep Your Eyes Open. If you see a close colleague suffering from added stress, or an unusual change in mood, try reaching out. They may not be comfortable discussing their challenges, or they may feel the need to do exactly that, but in either event taking that moment to reach out and connect can go a long way towards lifting suffering spirits.
Keep Your Ears Open. If a close colleague does approach you to talk, hear them out. They may not have another close friend or family member available to confide in, and simply the chance to be heard and the knowledge that they have a friend they can speak with can be a huge source of support. If you think your colleague may be in need of additional help, your workplace's HR department may be able to connect them with an Employee Assistance Program for further counseling. Additionally, individuals can phone 211 in Ontario to receive information on mental health resources free through Service Ontario.
If, however, your colleague is in a mental health crisis, or they have declared an intention to harm themselves or others, call 911 immediately.
Keep Talking. The first step to improving mental health across Canada is breaking down the stigma. The celebrities and familiar faces who have put their face on the #BellLetsTalk campaign seem brave and vulnerable in sharing their stories, and they are. Yet if we all keep talking, more faces and voices and stories will emerge while that vulnerability continues to erode.
The bottom line is that that coworker with cancer will hopefully get better, and will be truly grateful for all the warmth and support that surrounds them. The same goes for that colleague with mental illness. In the meantime, let’s keep talking about it.