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The importance of managing mental health in the workplace

When commerce grad Jeremiah Brown returned to his bank job after an extended leave to train and compete in the 2012 Olympics, the silver medalist in the men's eight rowing competition was grateful for the opportunity but quickly realized he didn't have the heart to give it his all.

He lasted a week. "It was funny. There was one of those motivational posters. It had a men's eight [team], except a sarcastic take on it said, 'You are not paid for your dreams, get back to work,'" Mr. Brown, now 30, said in a speech this week at a conference on workplace mental health.

After the euphoria of reaching the podium at the London Olympics, Mr. Brown had trouble settling into a new career role. With a young family to support, it was a difficult and stressful time for him.

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"So now I am in my dream job, and I have a little bit of survivor's guilt," said Mr. Brown, who is manager of athlete wellness at the Canadian Olympic Committee. "It's not easy. We think athletes have made this choice: 'You went to the Olympics, you had this great experience, suck it up.' Well, it just doesn't work that way. It doesn't work that way for veterans; it doesn't work that way for many of your employees," Mr. Brown told an audience of corporate managers at a Toronto seminar sponsored by human resources consulting firm Morneau Shepell Inc.

Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell, said everyone has a different stress threshold – but in the current economic and employment environment, many employees are reaching that threshold more quickly.

"The link between stress, mental health and absence remains a significant challenge for many Canadian employers," the firm said in releasing the results of a new survey that found that depression is now equal to high blood pressure as a top reason Canadians see physicians.

"Each year, we see an increase in employees seeking support for stress and anxiety – conditions that are attributable to everything from the uncertainty of an unstable economy to difficulties in a personal relationship," Alan Torrie, president and chief executive officer of Morneau Shepell, said in a preface to the survey.

While not all mental distress is work-related, organizational culture and practices can play a significant role – either positive or negative – in terms of the mental well-being and productive engagement of employees, Ms. Allen said.

Morneau Shepell reports that 60 per cent of employees it surveyed in the fall of 2015 cited emotional or interpersonal issues such as a lack of organizational support, poor communication and conflict as a significant source of workplace stress, followed by job-related issues such as workload and deadlines.

This comes as no surprise to Toronto-based employment lawyer Janice Rubin. Her firm is often commissioned by employers to conduct independent workplace investigations in response to specific complaints of harassment, but the lawyers at her firm are also engaged in "more proactive reviews" of workplaces where managers know there is something wrong but cannot pinpoint the root of the problem.

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"There are so many stressors in the workplace," Ms. Rubin said in an interview. "It is not just difficult people or toxic people that you are working with. Some of it is just that everybody is being asked to do more … The pace at which we are all working is faster, that all contributes to it."

Ms. Allen said "the biggest issue is not organizations being bad, but a lack of knowledge."

"I have spoken to people who think, 'Well, I want people to be motivated, I don't want them to rest on their laurels, I don't want them to take things for granted' and they think it will help productivity."

One difficulty for employers is that employees often suffer in silence when the stress levels become too extreme for them to cope with, Ms. Allen and Ms. Rubin said. Sometimes an independent third party can provide a confidential sounding board for employees and provide employers with better information about what is harmful and what is helpful.

"You can present information that may cause the organization to have a bit of an 'aha' moment about the cost of having Mr. Cowboy sales guy, who is abusing his role for 10 years. Well, yeah, you are hitting your targets, but half his team has been on short-term disability in the last two years," Ms. Rubin said.

In his role at the Canadian Olympic Committee, Mr. Brown said mental health support is essential for athletes, who routinely push themselves to the physical and emotional limit. "I want them to know that this is something we should be talking about; it's part of performance. It's not taboo."

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