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Bell Business Markets manager Sophie Watier based in Montreal has been trained to recognize mental illness symptoms and approach employees respectfully. The training, she says, puts employees at ease, too. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)
Bell Business Markets manager Sophie Watier based in Montreal has been trained to recognize mental illness symptoms and approach employees respectfully. The training, she says, puts employees at ease, too. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)

Human resources

Mental health – a manager’s toughest talk Add to ...

If a person with mental illness is able to work, he or she should be encouraged to do so.

“The key question to ask is,‘What is it you need to stay productive?’” Ms. Baynton advised. The answer is as “unique as the individual,” she said.

What may be required: clear communication, more structure or more flexibility, enhancing the ability to focus by minimizing distractions including conflict, multitasking and pressure.

“Many of the accommodations are not really costly,” Dr. Dewa said. But it’s imperative that they evolve out of a discussion between the manager and the employee, she said.

“Sometimes employees don’t really know what to ask for.” And so, the discussion may involve some brainstorming.

It may be that the employee is not comfortable leading a meeting that has been part of his or her responsibilities, she suggested.

“Sometimes it’s noise,” she said, for example, “If a person’s desk is near the printer and everybody is always around the printer.”

She added that it may be difficult to make changes without raising questions in the workplace. “Trying to find that balance, it’s useful for the manager to ask the employee, ‘Would you be comfortable if I did this?’”

“If someone was qualified and capable to do a task before depression or anxiety-related disorders became a problem,” said Ms. Baynton, “in a majority of cases, you can do the task even when you’re not well, with the right kinds of support.”

She noted that she is referring to cases of moderate depression and anxiety disorder and not psychosis.

For all the responsibilities managers may be expected to take on regarding mental health in the workplace, “They should never try to diagnose, treat or counsel,” Ms. Baynton cautioned.

Even expecting a manager to identify if an employee is experiencing mental illness, she said, “is not fair and not their role. It is their job to discuss behaviours in the workplace, and workplace issues and how that may be impacting performance.”

As well, she emphasized, “It’s not the manager’s job to make employees tell them about their personal health. For some people, health issues are personal.”

On the other hand, she said, “You don’t need to shut people down who wish to talk about it – and talk about it and talk about it and talk about it.”

Sometimes, said Ms. Watier, “It’s not clear during these discussions that we’re talking about mental illness. It can go from performance issues to personal issues.”

She attributed that progression to “a safe environment. They know they can trust us because we were trained to deal with this.”

The big change, said Ms. Watier, “is that we are really proactive. We’re not just waiting for a mental illness problem to come up. All the time we’re educating, facilitating, encouraging employees to participate in seminars and read articles, so we’re all always aware of mental health and tools for dealing with these issues.”

Another advantage, she said, is that employees can extend “what we’re sharing with them to family and friends.”

As a manager, she said, “I’m so proud to work for a company that cares.”

As someone with a close family member who is living with mental illness, she said, “It is an initiative that is deep in my heart.”

‘Not all mental health issues are disabilities’

Before she went back to school in the 1990s and became a consultant about workplace mental health, Mary Ann Baynton had a brokerage business with eight employees.

“Four had mental health issues,” she recalled, although she didn’t realize that when she hired them. “I just hired the best and brightest people I could find.”

At the time, she said, “I had that ignorant stereotype that people living with mental illness must be crazy.”

One employee was living with bipolar disorder, another with posttraumatic stress disorder, another with depression and another experienced panic attacks.

(The other four employees had issues, too. “We all had issues,” Ms. Baynton cheerfully said.)

“In my ignorance, I asked them what they needed. And they told me.”

After she made accommodations for them, they were so productive and so effective, she explained, that she was able to sell the business, return to school and change careers.

“What they taught me is, first of all, that not all mental health issues are disabilities. Some are just conditions that you live with and manage.”

Secondly, she said, “Even with mental health issues, there are ways to stay productive and contribute 100 per cent.”

What accommodations did Ms. Baynton make that were so effective?

“The person with bipolar disorder said she found the very complex files were overwhelming for her. The person who experienced panic attacks said she was worried about having one in front of a client.

“So they switched tasks and both stayed productive and neither had to take time off.”

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