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Carl Vendette has recently gone public with his battle with depression. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Carl Vendette has recently gone public with his battle with depression. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

State of Mind Part 3: Mental illness and work

'A job you feel good about is therapeutic' Add to ...

If having a strong support network of family and friends is important, so is the sense of worth that comes from being able to resume a career.

“One of the worst things in our society is joblessness,” says David Albert Newman, 35, an auditor with the Province of Manitoba. “If you don't have a job, you don't have that social inclusion of financial independence.”

Mr. Newman struggles almost daily with schizophrenia, working full-time even as he nears completion of a master's degree in business administration. Sometimes he also thinks he can communicate telepathically, or that people around him may not exist. “You just catch yourself and say, ‘Well, that was an odd thought. Maybe I will just package that up for a while.'”

After a serious psychotic episode in 2005, he says, a psychiatrist told him that he would “probably need to be institutionalized” for the rest of his life.

Instead, he worked hard to recover, and was eventually hired by the province. Because he is open about his illness, “people can be apprehensive,” and it can be hard to distinguish between legitimate concerns about his work performance and stigma caused by his condition.

When Ms. Mik-Girard returned to her American Express job, her boss made great efforts to accommodate her, allowing her to travel less. She worked from home, but felt a need for more interaction with co-workers, so space was found for her at the office – and the details of her illness remained confidential, until she chose to disclose them.

She has since left to start a family, but still speaks to companies about mental illness, and plans to return to the corporate world when her kids are in daycare.

“If you were successful before a mental illness,” she says, “you can be successful afterward.”

What a (smart) boss can do to help

It takes more than a fitness centre to make a healthy workplace. In 2010, one in four working Canadians said they were highly stressed – especially those who were managers and professionals earning no less than $80,000 a year.

Graham Lowe, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, advises companies on how to improve their workplace culture. He often begins by asking employees to list tasks they must do that are not essential to their jobs – from attending meetings that lack a clear agenda to requiring a superior's approval for something that doesn't really warrant it.

“One of the most obvious ways that people are stressed,” he says, “is that they are asked to do too many things in too short a time.”

Dr. Lowe focuses on results more than process, preferring to set out responsibilities then let employees decide how best to meet them – even if it means holding meetings at Starbucks.

For example, Vancouver City Savings, the largest credit union in English-speaking Canada, allows “care” time. As a result, Vancity's largely female workers don't have to book a whole day off just to take a child or aging parent to a doctor's appointment.

Flexibility can go both ways, Dr. Lowe says. For example, a healthy workplace doesn't rule out bedtime BlackBerry checks.

Last month, German auto maker Volkswagen responded to charges that it was forcing workers to do “electronic overtime” by halting all messages sent after hours. But Dr. Lowe says many employees consider such messages an asset, not an imposition. “We are in a knowledge-based economy. “We have skilled and talented employees – we should use them more effectively.”

Clearly, there is room for improvement. A survey of 1,000 workers (including nearly 500 front-line managers) conducted last year by the Conference Board of Canada found that only 46 per cent of respondents felt that their workplaces promoted mental health. They said employers must do a better job of educating people and encourage those who need help to come forward.

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