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mental health in the workplace

Like many women in the workplace, Ida Mayer of St. Catharines, Ont., balances a full-time job with caring for her ailing husband Don. But her burden is mitigated by an understanding employer.Matthew Sherwood

Ida Mayer is a full-time office worker at The Bay in the Pen Centre shopping mall in St. Catharines, Ont.

She's also the primary caregiver for her 65-year-old husband. Don Mayer was diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson's following cancer surgery.

Her family physician, who has treated Ms. Mayer for fibromyalgia, referred her to a counsellor for therapy and prescribed a low-dose antidepressant – "just enough to keep me settled," Ms. Mayer explains.

Juggling full-time employment and caregiving has been extremely stressful for Ms. Mayer, who turns 62 next month.

For all that, Ms. Mayer is fortunate. She experiences her workplace as a psychologically safe and supportive environment. Some days, it can even be therapeutic.

"I'd come in and bawl, and talk to Cindy and she'd give me a hug and then I was okay and I could go back to work."

Cindy Gill is the human resources administrator at The Bay.

"Sometimes she just needed to speak to someone," Ms. Gill says. "I'd get the Kleenex out and give her a big hug and she'd talk and I'd listen, then give her words of encouragement and support."

Equally important is the flexibility The Bay offers Ms. Mayer.

Her normal working hours are 8 a.m. through 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. But if there's an emergency with Mr. Mayer or appointments, she can leave and make up the time.

"We just make it happen," Ms. Gill explains. "She arrives before 8, she misses lunches and breaks. How can I say no to her? We accommodate her."

Ms. Mayer's work environment could be a model for the new National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which was to be announced Wednesday by the Canadian Standards Association and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Both women agree that two particular factors, not common to every employment situation, make the accommodations and compassion possible in Ms. Mayer's case.

The first is straightforward.

Ms. Mayer "is in a job where we can do it a little easier, because she's behind the scenes," Ms. Gill says.

For the first 26 years of her career at The Bay, Ms. Mayer worked as a salesperson, in the ladies' wear and lingerie departments. "If I was still on the floor, it would be impossible," says Ms. Mayer, referring to the flexibility in her workday.

The other factor that makes for such an empathetic environment for Ms. Mayer might be more controversial.

It's women bonding and supporting each other.

"We understand what each other is going through because we're women," Ms. Gill says. "We're both mothers. It's the caring thing."

Although both women are quick to say that store manager Andrew Fraser is an excellent and accommodating manager, with an open door policy, Ms. Gill points out, "He's not someone Ida would go to for a hug."

Ms. Mayer refers to her "core group at work: three women who know quite a bit about the guilt you feel because you're not there [at home], you're here [at work]."

The understanding and support women can offer each other at work is crucial to their well-being, because, throughout their working life, from pregnancy to caregiving to menopause to a higher rate of cognitive decline, women experience more mental health issues than men do, according to one expert.

"Workplace stress is felt by most men and women and there's no question that it can exacerbate depression and anxiety," says Diane Meschino, a psychiatrist in the women's mental health program at Women's College Hospital in Toronto and head of the reproductive life stages program.

"But evidence suggests it has a disproportionate effect on women," she says. "They feel the workplace stress more. Is that biology? Is it because they've got other stresses in other parts of their life? Is it the way the workplace is structured? These are questions that need answers."

This gender split may not always be the case, though.

"More men are participating in caretaking roles and they are also reporting increased work-life stress," Dr. Meschino says.

"The accommodations for mental health and strategies for psychological well-being in the workplace aren't only for the benefit of women," Dr. Meschino emphasizes. "They're for people who need them, for a whole set of circumstances."

How workplaces deal with these mental-health issues is "quite variable," says Dr. Meschino, referring to her experience. "Some are extremely progressive and some far less so."

She describes the employer of one of her patients with depression as "enormously supportive."

"We make decisions together about how much work she can do and when and how often she should work if she has a relapse. They are my partners in planning for this woman and this enables her to work in spite of serious illness. She loves her work, is extremely loyal and dedicated and, as a result of this arrangement, she is also incredibly productive."

Back at The Bay in St. Catharines, circumstances have changed somewhat.

Ms. Mayer requires less flexibility and fewer hugs these days because Don Mayer's dementia has proved to be reversible and he is regaining most of his cognitive abilities.

However, Ms. Gill's father-in-law was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

"I go to Ida to talk about it," Ms. Gill says, "because she's been through it. And she's totally supportive."