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leadership lab

Consultant and executive vice-president at MHIB Global Inc.

With all the goings-on in the White House these days – people quitting, bullying – there are calls for everything from an in-depth psychiatric exam of the president to outright impeachment. Unfortunately, that kind of toxic atmosphere exists in many other workplaces.

What if your chief executive or department head is going in that direction? What should you do if one of the people you manage is showing signs of mental distress? What if you are the corporate version of U.S. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, being bullied by the boss?

The immediate objective is for an employee in need to get help. We’re fortunate in this country to have the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, a voluntary set of guidelines and tools created by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Organizations can tap that resource to help provide a psychologically safe and healthy environment for their employees. The guidelines also help identify workplace risk factors.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the direct and indirect costs of mental-health issues can exceed 4 per cent of GDP, which in Canada would be almost $70-billion a year. That cost accounts for the amount of work taken off and for “presenteeism” – being on the job but not fully functioning because of illness.

The important thing is for those who manage people to be properly trained to deal with these situation. However, many managers are not getting this training, and what’s more, many employers don’t know where to go for help.

So if you are a manager and think one of your people is in need, see what policies and practices exist. Assuming you have some training in this area, you will know the difference between an employee exhibiting a behavioural problem and signs of a mental health issue. A person who normally shows up and meets deadlines suddenly missing work and deadlines likely has a mental health issue. Sudden changes in behaviour can also indicate as much.

That’s when it’s time to speak one-to-one with the employee. It’s a delicate conversation. Tell the person you have noticed certain things and ask how you can help. Be positive and supportive. See if their job can be changed in any way to make things easier. Refer them to the organization’s available resources – which might include an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) – and encourage them to get the care they need right away.

There is often a stigma attached to reaching out for help, and it may be best to have the person talk to someone outside the workplace, although in-house initiatives such as peer-support programs can be effective in providing support and reducing stigma.

In smaller organizations, everyone knows everyone else, and going to an outside resource may be the best route. Either way, the person needs support. The individual can also do a self-assessment, either online or in-person with a facilitator.

As a manager, you want them to stay at work, if possible. If it’s not, they should get the right treatment while away so they can get back at work as soon as possible. Many employers have such return-to-work programs.

The absolute worst approach is ignoring evidence of a problem and hoping for the best. That usually doesn’t work and, in some cases, can have catastrophic consequences.

Now, what if the chief executive is the problem? You might be a C-suite executive yourself, but the CEO is above you. In this scenario, go to HR in confidence and try to be constructive and helpful, rather than critical. You can also go to one of your peers or someone in a more senior position and have a conversation. Again, ignoring the problem is not recommended.

Bullying is a whole different ballgame. In a private company, a CEO or president who publicly berates and bullies an executive – or any employee – would likely be fired. Or they would at least asked to step down or take a leave of absence while getting treatment. Bullying creates a toxic work environment where no one is productive.

Jeff Sessions might be trying to carry on as best he can, but if you find yourself in a similar situation or have an employee in need, the range of organizations available to help includes Mental Health International, the Mood Disorders Society of Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. All of them are there to help.

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