How local companies and organizations are advocating for better workplace mental health for their employees
Being in poor physical health doesn’t mean you will get a physical illness. Lots of people can’t run a marathon, and never develop tuberculosis. Similarly, poor mental health does not necessarily lead to bi-polar disorder.
Mental health is a spectrum and relates to one’s state of mind, feelings and emotions. Like physical health, it can be improved, and local companies who see the value of a healthy workforce are cultivating just that in traditional and creative ways.
According to Jack Veitch, manager of community engagement and education for the Canadian Mental Health Association Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge, “mental health-related issues are the leading cause of short and long-term disability claims in Canada,” which is a pretty compelling reason for employers to address it. Veitch believes that good employers invest in the complete health of their employees.
“Hard hats and fall arrest harnesses obviously are needed on many jobsites, but so are mental health initiatives…because they pay dividends. Employee turn over is lower, and engagement is higher in a workplace culture that recognizes the importance of mental health.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Richard Hammill, human resources manager at Armada Toolworks in Lindsay. The plant — best known for making automotive parts — employs about 300 people and Hammill has no question about the importance of a physically and mentally healthy staff.
“We make parts that go on $400,000 dollar cars. Quality control is critical, and when our workers are mentally healthy, it improves the efficiency of our product. Quality control is better, and people are more focused, noticing concerns before they become problems.”
He notes that stress at home and in the workplace contributes to mental health issues, and they can’t be compartmentalized. Things that happen at work affect one at home and vice versa. He says finances are a common trigger outside the job, and interpersonal conflicts are a stressor at work. With 300 people working together, friction between personalities is inevitable.
“Even just one person having a bad day in a department of 30 can create a significant loss of cohesiveness and productivity.”
He goes on to say that many “bad days” relate to anxiety. Younger and newer employees, in particular, express fear of not doing a good job, of making a mistake, and of not fitting in with the team. Jack Veitch says this observation is substantiated by polling of Human Resource managers nationally who claim the biggest, most consistent trend they see across the board is a younger workforce showing generalized anxiety.
Jason Ward can — and does — talk with experience about anxiety and the stresses of work. The lawyer-turned-professional speaker found that after practicing law for more than 20 years, he struggled to manage the sky-high expectations of a demanding job and the responsibilities of a family.
“I felt like I had to achieve perfection in everything if I wanted to climb the legal ladder, so I was at the office most, if not all, of the time I wasn’t sleeping. I would be in by 8 am and wouldn’t leave until 9 pm or later, but when my first child was born in 2002, I realized how crushing that culture was. For the first six months of his life, I spent more time at work than at home.”
The next year, looking for an escape, he started the Wards Lawyers firm in Lindsay, but with the advent of email and cell phones he still felt chained to the desk, driven by anxiety, depression and resentment toward his job. 15 years later things had deteriorated to the point where mornings began with him sitting in his vehicle for an hour outside the office.
“I would stare at the big glass doors with my name on them, summoning whatever I needed to get into the building. It was usually the thought of drinking at the end of the day — two dozen bottles of wine were delivered to my house every week — that got me through it. Eventually, I started showing up to the office drunk for our weekly evening meetings. Other nights, I would go into the office to ‘catch up’ on work. Instead, I would sit alone, drinking in my office. One day, my wife patiently told me that if I didn’t get help, she would leave me.”
By 2020 with the help of a sobriety coach and therapist he dried out, but was still self-medicating with THC, unable go into work without the help of mind-altering substances. He retired from law in December of 2021 and successfully spent 30 days in a rehabilitation centre in Montreal.
While Ward’s case may be an extreme example, his spiral did begin with feelings of pressure to measure up.
So, what can be done to create a workplace that is conducive to solid mental health?
Like many large companies, Armada has an employee assistance plan that allows employees access to 24 hour a day help to set up a therapy or counselling session. And, they have gone so far as to call in an external counselling service after a crisis event. It did not happen at the plant, but directly involved an employee, and the wellbeing of coworkers was a concern.
On the factory floor, Hammill is a big fan of informally letting people know their value. He himself was a former plant manager, and he tried to connect with workers daily.
“Instead of just addressing problems, I felt it was important to praise and recognize employees when things were going well. I tried to say something positive to people every day. I think it was appreciated because they sure let me now about it if I missed a few days.”
As might be expected, Wards Lawyers boasts a very progressive work environment in terms of mental health.
“We have appointed a non-corporate Mental Health First Aid Officer in our workplace, formally by bylaw, with a confidential and independent mandate, and formal training and certification. This person supports mental health generally in the workplace, by keeping it front and centre in everyone’s busy day. If approached in our workplace to identify and discuss any mental health-related event or condition, this person will then prepare and identify for the clerk or lawyer a list of optimal resources to obtain the necessary support. It is very well utilized and has been a great program for everyone.”
They also have a weekly Mental Health Day where the firm provides a healthy lunch accompanied by fun, short activities arranged with a positive mental health theme.
Additionally, staff make use of a lounge-style room, replete with a yoga mat and other activities, intended to be a mental health time-out space for everyone at any time.
And to address the absence of any professional development for those just entering the profession, Wards will soon initiate a round-table series focusing on setting yourself up for success in the legal profession, particularly managing your mental health effectively, involving a series of speakers addressing practice management and mental health awareness. That’s in addition to twice-annual wellness retreats for everyone in the firm which might include a stay at a resort for a weekend, with spouses, or a day-long activity, like a local cruise.
Like Richard Hammill, Ward likes to “fairly regularly check in with our lawyers and often clerks about their work management and mental health. That may be a casual conversation, or I may send them information about the importance of identifying and managing mental wellness. I also blog about mental health weekly (on his new website mentallyspeaking.ca) and share those with everyone at the firm, not only the lawyers.”
Self-employed individuals in some ways have the most stress, and the least help available to them. David Evans recently sold his thriving multi-clinic physiotherapy business in Toronto and has opened a solo practice — Evans Physiotherapy — in Fenelon Falls where he lives. Since many business owners don’t have the time and resources required to focus on mental health in the same way Armada and Wards has, he suggests doing one thing that costs neither. He believes that expending mental energy “worrying about your competitors and what they are doing comes to be of no help. You can only control the quality, integrity and delivery of your own services (whatever the industry). If you do that well, you are doing the best you can. So, worry less and execute a quality business product.”
Awareness of the importance of mental health has evolved in workplaces not traditionally viewed as places where any form of ‘weakness’ is tolerated. Today, NFL quarterbacks, NHL goalies and your first responders can all access supports.
Volunteer firefighters in Kawartha Lakes for example, have access to the city’s human resources department, but also the critical incident stress management peer support team. The volunteer group is trained in assisting individuals in crisis following an upsetting call. They let the individual know the science behind why they are stressed by what they encountered, that there is no stigma associated with what they are experiencing, and that professional help is just a phone call away.
And that goes for everyone.
Almost all small business owners who were spoken to pointed out the elephant in the room: mental health problems are easy to fake. All had stories of employees manipulating the supports offered and taking advantage of the system. “Comp Workers” as they were sometimes called, know the system and play out the line until they reach the end of the benefits program before returning.
Jack Veitch acknowledged that there is a problem with workers gaming the system. It is commonly held that 10 per cent of people on stress leaves don’t really need them. On the other hand, he adds that 20-30 per cent of employees who should take advantage of services do not, and research shows 36 per cent of employees don’t even feel comfortable about broaching mental health concerns with their boss.