Mental illness is estimated to cause a $2.5-trillion drag on the global economy in terms of lost attendance, lost productivity and less easily defined measurements such as lost creativity.
And the panacea often trotted out, especially in discussions on what companies can do to help employees, is resilience. Yet, as experts in the field note, this is a concept that is often misunderstood. It requires a much more communal effort than simply individuals coping and learning resiliency skills on their own.
“Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from stress, but it’s a little more complicated than that, and I would like to say what it’s not,” said psychologist Vivien Lee in a panel discussion on mental-health issues and the workplace. The panel was part of The Globe and Mail’s human resources seminar on Solving Workplace Challenges and its 2018 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards.
“Resiliency doesn’t mean you’re never affected by things. It doesn’t mean you go through [the day] and you never feel sad, you never feel angry, you never feel stressed. That’s not healthy either. You want to feel those natural emotions, because they are signs that something is going on. Our bodies are trying to tell us something,” Dr. Lee said.
Emotions can be felt and acknowledged, but we can learn to use those emotions more constructively. The question though is, how? How can those dealing with mental illness do this without feeling like they’re falling short at work, asked Kendra Fisher, a prominent speaker on mental health and founder of the advocacy group Mentallyfit.
“You feel as though when you go into a job, there’s this checklist that you’re supposed to be able to fulfill,” she said. “You know that there are expectations of you. You’re given these expectations when you start there, and you’re taught what the culture is. Ultimately, to be successful, you have to check off all of those boxes.”
For those in that kind of common workplace environment, there is a fear of asking for help, especially help with mental illness. But “those concessions don’t mean I’m not going to fulfill my responsibilities. It means that if you are able to make those concessions for me, I’m going to be able to achieve more for you, because it creates a safe space. It creates a safe environment,” Ms. Fisher said.
The flip side is that some companies may feel that if they give concessions to one employee, say, flexible deadlines or the ability to work from home, other employees may demand those too, she noted.
Yet, Ed Mantler, vice-president of programs and priorities at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, emphasized that no employer is working in a vacuum. (All the panelists nodded their heads in agreement with this.) There are already in place many standards and guidelines for companies to work with.
“No one is starting from scratch. Every organization already has some of the pieces of the puzzle in place. And it’s a matter of looking at those [policies] holistically, bringing them together, analysing where they can make improvements, and taking incremental, affordable steps to keep improving,” he said.
So, assisting employees and improving mental-health programs can be seen not as a major, daunting task for an organization, but as a matter of adding small extra measures to cover gaps in a company’s current policies.
Still, in helping to foster resiliency, and in asking employees how a company can help them, it’s important for employers not to get into a pseudo-diagnosis of a worker, to see them as showing the signs of “x” condition.
“I think something that happens is that we start to evaluate and start to judge human beings [at work]. That’s where I get concerned. I think employers are wise to focus on the behaviours and stay away from the diagnosis business,” said Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of work-force productivity at Morneau Shepell.
There is, however, the concept of a company having the duty to inquire. This means sitting down with an employee if his or her work is suffering and asking about ways to help.
Complicating this is the fact that people coping with mental-health issues often experience a long, slow progression before they may reach a crisis point. Work may even be the one place they feel safe, a place where tasks are more clearly structured.
“If someone is having mental-health issues, they don’t just automatically want to go on leave. That’s certainly not the case,” Dr. Lee said. “Most of the time, people want to continue working. … The more you can provide some kind of accommodations for them, in the short term, the more likely they are going to stay at work.”
Helping colleagues through a tough time, helping them feel more productive and hopefully feel better, can potentially benefit others in the office, lending a sense of family, Dr. Lee said.
Ms. Fisher took this a step further, arguing that fostering resiliency and providing accommodations for mental illness — just as an employer may make the workplace wheelchair accessible — ultimately comes down to the employer.
“It all comes back to management. The culture of your workplace is built from the top down. We can have whatever relationship we want with our peers in the workplace. But ultimately, what’s okay and what’s acceptable comes from the top,” she said.
And often that means listening to what employees say they need in order to stay productive despite illness. “Management has to give themselves enough credit and enough confidence to know that you guys are going to be able to manage productivity,” Ms. Fisher said.