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Bell Business Markets manager Sophie Watier based in Montreal has been trained to recognize mental illness symptoms and approach employees respectfully. The training, she says, puts employees at ease, too. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)
Bell Business Markets manager Sophie Watier based in Montreal has been trained to recognize mental illness symptoms and approach employees respectfully. The training, she says, puts employees at ease, too. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)

Human resources

Mental health – a manager’s toughest talk Add to ...

The manager of a small manufacturing company in a Toronto suburb who oversees about 40 workers has dealt with the following employee issues in the past few years: depression, suicide attempt, alcohol addiction, harassment, arrest, fisticuffs and multiple meltdowns.

(What is a meltdown? As with pornography, you know it when you see it. And it’s a rare and fortunate manager who hasn’t seen an employee melt down.)

Managers will tell you it’s not the work itself that they find stressful. It’s not hiring or firing or scheduling or meeting deadlines or customer demands that make their workday difficult. It’s the people problems that often arise out of mental illness.

And if there’s one conversation managers don’t want to initiate with employees who report to them, it’s a conversation about mental health.

Employees aren’t so eager to talk about it, either.

A Canadian Medical Association study in 2008 indicated that just 23 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they would feel comfortable talking to an employer about their mental illness.

“Managers and employees don’t like to talk about behaviour problems,” acknowledged Carolyn Dewa, health economist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. “It’s really uncomfortable.”

But with one out of five workers experiencing mental illness, and more education and openness about it, managers are increasingly expected to assume an active role on the front line of mental health in the workplace.

It’s no longer a matter of leaving it to the human resources department.

Managers may be asked to be alert to symptoms, initiate the dreaded conversation, guide the employee to assistance programs, keep in touch during a leave-of-absence, and facilitate the employee’s return to work.

Almost one in three managers surveyed recently by Ipsos-Reid reported that they’d been trained to identify and help employees with signs of depression.

Bell Canada, for example, has instituted “mandatory training for all our managers about mental health,” said Mary Deacon, chairwoman of Bell’s mental health initiative. Managers attend three-hour sessions, “face-to-face, in small groups of 15 to 20 people,” facilitated by a mental health professional.

Sophie Watier, manager of client care at Bell Business Markets, was one of the first managers to be trained when the program was launched two years ago.

“It was a clear confirmation that it [awareness of mental health] is part of our job,” said Ms. Watier, who supervises a team of seven managers and 170 employees in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

“Employees feel safe,” she explained, “because they know we’re all trained and not biased. We are working from facts about mental health and that makes the perfect welcoming approach for employees to raise their hands and talk about these issues.”

Becoming aware of facts and stats about mental health issues was an important part of the training, said Ms. Watier, who is based in Montreal.

Also, she said, “We were taught to recognize symptoms and how to act on that, how to discuss such a sensitive topic with employees. We were given tools on how to approach the conversation, how to do it so we are respectful.”

Added Ms. Deacon, who initiated the Bell program: “This is an area where people don’t know what to do. I don’t believe for one minute that people don’t want to do the right thing, but we Canadians are so polite, so fearful of saying the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything.”

Managers usually know what to do and say when an employee suffers a broken leg or a heart attack. However, when the illness is depression, anxiety, panic attacks or posttraumatic stress syndrome – which together account for 95 per cent of mental illness in the workplace – managers may be at a loss.

But they don’t need to get stressed and anxious about employees’ mental health or lack thereof, said Mary Ann Baynton, a consultant on mental health in the workplace and co-author of Preventing Workplace Meltdown: An Employer’s Guide to Maintaining a Psychologically Safe Workplace.

“Dealing with psychological health and safety in the workplace is similar to dealing with physical health and safety,” she said. “It’s not as much of a burden as people might anticipate. It comes down to the way we treat people.”

However, she emphasized, “It’s not about being nice to employees and expecting nothing of them.”

In fact, treating people as if they’re not able to perform can provoke a poor relationship with co-workers.

“It’s often viewed as special treatment,” Dr. Dewa cautioned. Especially if the employee hasn’t been really productive, it may seem as if the manager is favouring that employee, she said.

It also may mean a small business owner won’t be able to meet goals if an employee isn’t productive and could even jeopardize the business.

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