It started with being tired all the time. That’s not unusual; busy professionals often feel like they need to catch up on their sleep. But as the days and weeks passed for Nancy McCalder, her fatigue didn’t get better, it got worse.
“I had very low energy,” she says. “I remember coming into work and, by noon, I felt like I was looking at the world through a black cloud. I was pushing to get through the day and I felt drained and exhausted. I worked in an environment where mental health is important, and I knew something was wrong, so I spoke to my doctor.”
McCalder’s physician promptly diagnosed her with depression and started her on a treatment plan to combat her symptoms and help her get back on her feet.
“I was lucky. The treatment prescribed was helpful immediately,” she says. “I was given medication that was effective and took some time off work. By the time I returned, the medication had helped a great deal.”
Today, McCalder is the executive director of the Support Network, which is the operating organization for three key assistance programs for people in Northern Alberta in distress. While she was lucky enough to recognize the symptoms and seek help, many individuals suffering from mental health issues may not have the ability to reach out for help, which can be debilitating, personally and professionally.
Ione Challborn, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Edmonton region, wears several hats.
She is the functional head of an organization that is one of 135 regional offices offering support to Canadians with mental illness, but she also has to run a business – a business with bills to pay, payroll to meet and staff to support. So how does she support employees with mental illness in the workplace while running a successful organization with 25 staff members and more than 100 volunteers?
“It’s a non-issue,” she says bluntly about the health status of her employees.
While she says the goal as a supervisor is to manage employer-employee relations with flexibility and enough rigour to meet operational goals, “You hire someone based on their skills and how they help you achieve your mission, not their mental health status.”
Challborn admits, though, that the employer’s desire to support their staff wholeheartedly while managing operational needs, can be a challenge. “You hire someone to do the job, and because an employee may be afraid they are going to be discriminated against, they don’t say anything at the interview stage or beyond.”
“If someone is employed and they have a [health concern], they may not say something, which makes support minimized and can negatively impact recovery.” What ultimately matters, though, says Challborn, is the individual’s recovery and it is critical for employers to learn all they can about mental illness in order to support their employee.
“One in five people will suffer mental illness in their lifetime,” says Challborn, “so as an employer you are going to come across it. It’s illegal to discriminate against an employee who is suffering from mental illness, so it makes sense to be very well-educated about opportunities and what you can do.”
So what can employers do to support employees while protecting the organization’s bottom line?
First and most important, says McCalder, is where “the head of the organization walks-the-talk” by creating a non-judgmental and trusting work environment. That way, employees can instigate a conversation around their mental health diagnosis without fear of recrimination. “The individual’s immediate supervisor needs to know [what’s going on] so that they can support the individual,” says McCalder. “If an employee has communicated to you, you need to ask what it looks like when they’re in distress. What does it look like if, for instance, they’ve stopped taking their medication?”
Second, she says, “We, as supervisors, need to invite the conversation. We need to be able to say, ‘I’m observing that you’re not doing well.’ ”
After opening that line of dialogue, McCalder says, the supervisor should then make sure that the employee knows that supports are in place, in the workplace and in the community, should they want to take advantage of them. “Employee assistance programs are very important in this scenario,” she says. “They’re anonymous and have great support systems available.”
Employees should also be reminded to contact organizations like the CMHA, which has programs in place to help with coping strategies and mechanisms for recovery from a mental-health illness diagnosis. The Support Network also offers programs, including an information directory service, 211, and a 24-hour distress line.
“If you have a friend, family member or co-worker in distress, call the distress line,” urges McCalder. “You can get some advice and receive coaching on how to ask the right questions,” which she knows from experience is critical to reaching an employee who may be suffering.
“I had an employee who was suffering from postpartum depression, and I [initially] missed the signs,” says McCalder. But, because of her personal experience with depression, she says she was comfortable initiating a conversation.
“I approached my employee and told her that I thought I knew what was going on because of my own experiences with depression. When she asked me what I knew about it, I shared my personal story with her.”
McCalder believes that her personal experience helped her assist an employee who was potentially in crisis. “I recognize the symptoms and, as an employer and as someone who suffered from depression, I will do something,” she says.
In order to balance supporting her employees’ mental health with her organization’s operational priorities, McCalder, like Challborn, believes the solution is simple: “I will speak out.”
Walk away from a vicious cycle
He is soft-spoken and hesitant in his speech but very candid about where he is today and how he got here.
Joseph (not his real name), works part-time at a large organization in Edmonton in an office that focuses on supporting individuals in crisis within his workplace. He also works part time at the Canadian Mental Health Association, where he was formerly a client, providing practical supports to current clients.
The work is meaningful and, most important, shows him that he is contributing. But that wasn’t always the case.
“I was a client at CMHA for close to two years,” he says. Suffering from a form of depression that goes back to his time in university, there was a sense that friends were moving on with their lives, getting good jobs, while he was just sitting at home, unemployed.
“It was a vicious cycle, and I didn’t see any way out.”
Becoming a client at CMHA meant trying something new. Although he had previously had one-on-one treatment, the group-setting dynamic was uncharted territory for him: “It was really essential to have that structure and that dynamic. I met other people who were also struggling and I found it really helped to know I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t a freak.”
The long-term aspect of the group setting was important because it provided a non-judgmental, positive environment. The results are measurable, Joseph says. “I think it’s been a gradual process, but I definitely feel better about things. I have made contacts and I have some friends.
“I feel like I’m in a better position, although I still struggle with work issues.”
The advice he would give to employers who may be struggling with how to support employees who are suffering from mental illness is simple: “I’ve met a lot of people who have had a hard time, and it helps that employers understand that people don’t necessarily fit into a mould of the stereotypical ‘employee.’
“Have patience and concentrate on the strengths of the employee. Ask about their ideal working environments; that can make a big difference. Recognize each individual. Everybody, no matter the diagnosis, has certain strengths.”