Bill Howatt is the chief of research on work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada
Most of us have watched Sesame Street and are familiar with the song One of These Things. I can tell you from living with a mental illness my entire life that I’ve felt “not like the others,” resulting in me personally feeling isolated and alone in the workplace.
Having expertise in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), I know that it’s impossible to remove all my anxiety. The key is to continue to learn how anxiety manages me. Despite all my training and years of working in mental health, there still are days when I just don’t feel comfortable sharing how I’m feeling. And at times when I do, I can tell the people around me aren’t quite sure how to react.
That may seem a bit odd, since I talk openly about my mental health. But perhaps not so unusual. Even with all the talk on stigma and some minor improvements, I feel like I’m taking a risk being honest about how I feel. If I struggle living with a mental health illness with all my support and resources, I can’t imagine how hard it is for the 20 per cent of our work force who are dealing with a mental health challenge.
I believe we need more senior leaders to pause and think about how many employees are feeling isolated daily because of stigma associated with having a mental health challenge. This is even before a pandemic has sent people home to be socially isolated – something that can challenge anyone’s mental health if they’re not prepared.
Too many senior leaders, middle managers, frontline leaders and peers just don’t have the knowledge, skills and sometimes desire to support someone in the workplace dealing with a mental illness. As a result, they’re not clear on how to be a psychologically safe leader.
“Mental health issues affect employees’ ability to see that they are not alone. Feeling alone does not equate to being alone,” says André Latreille, ombudsman for mental health at Public Services and Procurement Canada.
What most of us want is to feel safe and welcomed to share how we’re feeling. A few kind words and a smile can often help more than many understand, says Mr. Latreille.
We each own our mental health. However, there’s evidence that employers’ actions can have a positive impact, as was reported in a Deloitte report on workplace mental health programs that showed investing in mental health over the long term can generate a positive return on investment.
“Loneliness and social isolation should be a significant concern to all employers. There is a direct correlation between loneliness and growing workplace mental health issues. And, it typically results in weaker productivity, engagement and morale, not to mention higher disability and prescription drug costs,” says Joe Blomeley, an executive vice-president at insurance firm Green Shield Canada.
This suggests that employer action can have a positive impact on employees coming to work with a mental health concern. Progress on this concern around isolation and mental health can be positively affected when employers get the connection and act.
Employees with a mental health concern can evaluate how psychologically safe they feel in their workplace to share how they feel or to ask for help. Having one person in my life whom I can talk to daily about how I feel is critical for me.
If you don’t already have an individual in your workplace you can confide in, find someone, so you’re not alone. Context is important. An objective third person may help you evaluate your perspective, process information, and make an action plan.
Employers can help employees coming to work with a mental health concern by talking about how important social connections are to remove stigma. “We should focus on supporting employees to have meaningful social connections between individuals. As well, have strategies to support employees in time of need, such as providing clinically validated support tools, such as [internet-based CBT], underpinned by a coherent and integrated mental health strategy,” says Mr. Blomeley.
It can be difficult to manage a mental health challenge when you feel isolated and alone. The good news for employers is it doesn’t take a lot of work to be intentional and caring for a lot of financial and productivity upside.