Combating the mental illness stigma

by Sonia Straface

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The workplace plays an important role in mental health. For some, work gives a sense of purpose and the chance to feel productive, but for others, work can be the cause of stress which can lead to mental illness.

According to statistics, one fifth of the Canadian workforce experiences some form of a mental health issue, and in any week, half a million Canadians call in sick due to a mental health problem or illness.

On Oct. 30, five experts in the mental health space gathered at Trucking HR Canada’s first annual Gearing Up for Workplace Mental Health symposium to talk about mental illness, how to address it in the workplace, and ways to create a psychologically healthy work environment.

Panelists included Andrew Harkness, strategy advisor, organizational health initiatives at Workplace Safety and Prevention Services of Ontario; Linda Corkum, executive director of the Nova Scotia Trucking Safety Association; Miguel Mangalindan, associate lawyer at Monkhouse Law, an employment and labor law firm; Tammy Whelen, mental health educator at the Canadian Mental Health Association; and Yvone Defreitas, director of human resources at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health
and Safety.

Your duty as an employer
Mental illness does not discriminate and it is not a choice, explained Defreitas.

“You could have anybody, any age, any culture, mental illness can affect anybody,” she said.

Truck drivers are prone to mental illness because of all the time spent alone, Corkum said.

“Our biggest concern with truck drivers when it comes to mental health, is loneliness,” she said. “They spend 14 hours in the truck alone, and your mind tends to wander. For the driver, sometimes there’s a crisis at home and they’re not there to help.”

Many drivers also suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety.

So, what is the role of the employer? It’s your duty to accommodate, said Mangalindan.

“Under the Canadian Human Rights Act there is a duty for employers to accommodate,” he said. “It’s about asking yourself as an employer, how can you accommodate this employee within reason, to make it better for them?”

Mangalindan explained these accommodations could be things like working from home a few days a week, modifying start and end times, sitting by a window, or even taking 10-minute breaks to walk outdoors.

There is also a duty for employers to inquire, he added.

“Where an employer is or ought to be reasonably aware that the somebody’s disability is affecting their job performance, the duty to inquire is triggered,” he explained.

“So be observant. Ask the right questions. So, notice things like absences and uncharacteristic behaviors.”

The duty to accommodate stops at undue hardship, which by definition means, if your business can no longer operate because of the accommodations set forth.

If you’re an employer, and don’t know where to start when it comes to mental health awareness, Harkness said there’s lots of resources online.

Your duty as an employee
“If you see something, say something,” Harkness stressed to those in the room. “We have to get involved. The key piece is if you see someone struggling, to simply ask them, ‘Hey are you doing okay?’”

Harkness said coworkers should be aware that it’s a good thing for them to be proactive and be aware of their colleagues’ mood and state, no different from the obligation of managers and employers.

“We can take leadership roles regardless of what our job titles are,” he said. “Look for champions, who are willing to speak up, or share their story.”

To encourage mental health awareness, and reduce stigma, Harkness said it’s all about listening, using appropriate language and being kind.

“We as colleagues need to educate ourselves,” he advised. “And we need to make sure we are listening to what they are saying, and pushing them to help.”

Mental health first aid
Many offices across the country have designated personnel in the office to be first-aid certified.

Well now, instead of just acquiring your physical first aid certification, you can also get certified in mental health first aid.

“Mental health first aid training is a two-day workshop, where people learn to perform first aid on someone experiencing a mental health problem or mental health crisis,” explained Whelen, who is a certified mental health first aid trainer.

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  • —-Combating the mental illness stigma

    You mean combatting those taught to say there is one. The confusion is widespread.

    Those taught to say there is one have done considerable harm.