Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Workplace depression

Reaching out to suffering co-workers Add to ...

At the time, there seemed nothing unusual about his co-worker's behaviour, but looking back, the signs were there.

Andrew Scheer was a rookie MP with Dave Batters in 2004. The two men, both Conservative caucus members from Saskatchewan, worked closely together over the years.

"He just had a magnetic personality and was really positive," Mr. Scheer recalls.

More Related to this Story

When Mr. Batters, who left politics in 2008 after disclosing he was battling with anxiety and depression, took his own life last month, Mr. Scheer was as shocked as the rest of his colleagues. Looking back, however, Mr. Scheer says there were indications Mr. Batters was struggling with mental illness.

"In retrospect, he did have a tendency to sometimes, when things would bother him, to dwell on them a bit more than I might. But I kind of chalked that up to everybody has things that get them nervous or upset," Mr. Scheer says.

As illustrated by the deaths of Mr. Batters and Martin Streek, the former 102.1 The Edge radio host in Toronto who was found dead last week in what is believed to be a suicide, mental illness can often go unnoticed and even ignored in the workplace, something mental health professionals say must change.

"We're not doing nearly enough," says Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. "There's a tendency for all of us to back off from people who are going through these early signs of distress rather than reach out. And the backing off versus the reaching out is the basic challenge we've now got to meet."

There is no doubt mental illness is pervasive in the Canadian workplace. Approximately 7.5 million Canadians suffer a mental disorder each year, according the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. One in five Canadians will experience a mental disorder during their lifetimes, with anxiety and depression being the most common, according to the Canadian Psychological Association.

However, any mental-health issues a colleague may be struggling with, even in cases such as Mr. Streek's, can often go unnoticed.

"There wasn't one thing that stood out," says Paul Smith, Mr. Streek's agent for more than a decade. "I've been speaking with a few of his co-workers that I know and they all said the same thing … nobody saw anything."

Indeed, many times people struggling with mental illness go to great lengths to hide it.

"One of the ways in which you learn to balance depression with your public self is to learn how to in fact become an actor in order to project the comfortable self versus the disquieted self," Mr. Wilkerson says.

The most common signs that someone is grappling with mental illness at work include missed deadlines, unexplained absenteeism, lateness, lack of energy, lack of focus and irritability," says Donna Hardaker, a workplace mental-health specialist with Mental Health Works, a division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"What we generally suggest is that people look for changes," she says.

Even when flags are raised, however, co-workers and managers often choose not to intervene.

"I don't think it's because they don't want to say anything. I think they just don't know what to say and they're afraid of making it worse," says Carolyn Dewa, head of the Work and Well-being Research and Evaluation Program at CAMH.

"It's a big bridge to cross when you confront somebody with that. The message you're sending to them is, 'I think you've got a mental illness.' As everybody's been talking about, from the Prime Minister to various mental-health organizations, that's a big stigma to get past and I think that makes it difficult for friends and co-workers to float that idea," Mr. Scheer says.

Not addressing mental-health issues at work can have major financial effects.

"Employers are realizing how this affects the bottom line when you don't deal with these issues effectively," Ms. Hardaker says.

A 2008 survey of more than 450 Canadian organizations found that about 35 million work days are lost each year due to mental illness. The survey, conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting in partnership with the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, also found that mental-health issues account for nearly 40 per cent of short-term disability claims and play a part in 50 per cent of long-term claims. More than 30 per cent of Manulife Financial Corp.'s long-term disability claims are related to mental illness.

Researchers agree that the best way to begin dealing with the problem is for companies to establish an open environment where employees feel comfortable approaching co-workers and managers and are also made aware of what resources, from insurance coverage for treatment to Employee Assistance Programs, are available.

"It really begins with relationships," Dr. Dewa says. "If you don't have that good relationship to begin with, it's more difficult."

As for Mr. Scheer, he says few people are likely to diagnose signs of mental illness in the people they work with.

"Your initial thought is to just try to find an excuse for why somebody might be behaving in a certain why and chalk it up to an external factor that is temporary in nature," he says.

This is why experts agree that everyone in the Canadian workplace needs to learn how to identify signs that co-workers may be suffering mental illness, and how to approach them.

"The awareness of this is helping organizations understand that when you equip your people with skills to be able to approach employees who are struggling, regardless of the reasons of why they're struggling, it helps everyone," Ms. Hardaker says.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories