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Because employees may feel uncomfortable reaching out to a direct supervisor to discuss mental health matters, instituting a peer support or mentor system can help them work around the hierarchy.PeopleImages

Six months into her job at Toronto-based talent intelligence company Ideal, Kayla Kozan experienced her first nervous breakdown.

“It came after not sleeping for a few days,” says Ms. Kozan. “I was confused, paranoid, not sure what was going on around me.”

One of the company’s co-founders took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After the breakdown, Ms. Kozan returned home to live with her family in Regina.

“I was on leave for over a year, which is longer than I had worked at Ideal,” she says. “So, when I saw a call coming in from the office, I knew they were calling to lay me off.”

At the time of the call, Ms. Kozan was going through a depressive episode, feeling lost, depleted and like she wasn’t good at anything.

“Instead of letting me go, they were calling to say they want to fly me into Toronto to join the company holiday party,” she says.

Ms. Kozan describes the experience as “HR excellence, not HR compliance,” at a time when she needed it most.

“Someone else outside of my family believing in me was much more validating because I had such a hard time believing in myself,” she says.

Creating psychological safety in the office

How safe do you feel talking about mental health at work?

It’s a question that’s become increasingly relevant through the COVID-19 pandemic. An Angus Reid Institute study from January found that one in three Canadians say they are struggling with their mental health, with 37 per cent reporting feeling anxious and 23 per cent saying they are depressed.

“You can’t underestimate the power of the workplace to create psychological safety for their employees,” says Kim Foster Yardley, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist who specializes in performance psychology.

Mental health issues can be challenging to navigate for both employers and staff, she says, because stigma can hold people back from speaking out and symptoms can range in severity.

“With mental health, it’s so hard to pinpoint what’s going on. Someone can go from doing well one day to not getting up the next day,” Ms. Foster Yardley says. “It’s not something that is easy to bring up at work, so what we need is a more flexible, trusting workplace.”

Because employees may feel uncomfortable reaching out to a direct supervisor to discuss mental health matters, Ms. Foster Yardley says that instituting a peer support or a mentor system can help them work around the hierarchy.

Another way for companies to support mental health is to encourage their employees to schedule in mental health days.

“Allowing people to have one mental health day off work to go learn something or go to a park and spend time in nature can be very helpful,” she says.

But employees need to be willing to take that “me” time and leave work behind – and that includes those in management.

“There’s always going to be something you have to get done,” she says. “If you don’t book it, it’s never going to happen.”

Leading wellness by example

Some Canadian companies have publicly rolled up their sleeves in response to the rise in mental health issues during the pandemic.

In 2021, Coke Canada Bottling Limited raised the maximum coverage for employee mental-health benefits from $1,500 to $5,000 per year and expanded coverage to include social workers and psychotherapists. On April 1st, Bank of Nova Scotia will increase its mental-health coverage from $3,000 to $10,000 annually for eligible employees and their dependents.

Walmart Canada partnered with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global in 2021, introducing an app to help the company’s 100,000 associates prioritize self-care.

“The app is an educational tool to learn about burnout and anxiety, so that people can recognize the signs when they need to ask for help,” says Nabeela Ixtabalan, executive vice-president, people and corporate affairs at Walmart Canada.

Ms. Ixtabalan, a self-described former workaholic, says it’s important for everyone, including supervisors and managers, to be honest about their own mental health.

“We need to stop pretending we’re not affected by anxiety, depression and burnout,” she says. “Leaders have to stop pretending to be superhuman.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Ms. Kozan. She launched a corporate mental wellness consulting agency called Peak Wellness in 2019, providing mindfulness classes and hosting workshops for companies across North America including Wealthsimple, Amazon and KPMG.

Ms. Kozan’s mindfulness workshops are voluntary for employees, but she says she notices a significant difference in attendance when leaders showed up.

“The leadership team drives the attendance. It’s something you have to show by example,” she says. “Some leaders worry that if they open the conversation and people come to them, they wouldn’t know what to do, but sharing stories is so helpful for people.”

If in doubt, simply show compassion, Ms. Kozan says.

“You don’t need to know the background, and you don’t need to ask for extra information,” she says. “It’s just about asking [yourself], ‘What’s the most human thing to do?’”

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