Mental health can be a difficult concept to understand.
If you have an employee who is suffering from the flu, or who is in a wheelchair, their illness is visible and typically easy to accommodate. With the flu, there’s sleep and medication. With a wheelchair, it’s accessibility.
Mental health issues, however, are challenging to recognize, and if you’re not trained as a mental health professional, it can go completely unnoticed—especially in the workplace. Add to that stigmas often associated with mental health issues.
“I think that’s why it’s a difficult conversation, people don’t like to talk about things they don’t understand,” said Janet Ozembloski, Vice President, Legal and Privacy Officer at Medcan. Ozembloski was speaking on a panel organized by Healthy Minds Canada last month, part of its Mindful Employer Series.
“I think senior leaders often bury their heads in the sand,” said Ozembloski. “The private domain and the workplace are no longer disembodied. The employer can no longer cast a blind eye.”
The Mental Health Continuum Model
Twenty per cent of Canadians will deal with a mental illness at some point in their lives, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. But, just because an employee is suffering from mental health issues, doesn’t mean they have a mental illness.
To help employers understand mental illness in the workplace, the Mental Health Commission of Canada developed a Mental Health Continuum model that illustrates the spectrum of symptoms people exhibit when dealing with mental health issues.
One of the most important things that the continuum model shows is that mental health is not binary.
Credit: Mental Health Commission of Canada
Instead, mental health runs along a continuum with different symptoms depending on the variance of your employee’s health.
The continuum can help you recognize the early warning signs of a mental health issue in an employee, minimize the stigma surrounding it, and provide accommodations before they move further along the spectrum.
Ranging from healthy to ill, the continuum shows the stages in-between that could eventually lead to a mental illness. It’s possible to move both forwards and backwards along this continuum, which is where early recognition can help your employees.
Don’t diagnose, accommodate
Dr. Gina Di Giulio, Director of Psychology with Medcan, who also sat on the panel, cited a Centre for Addiction and Mental Health report that concluded there are 500,000 people in Canada who are not at work due to mental health issues.
“You want to retain your workforce as much as possible. In order to do that, you’re going to have to notice the signs,” said Di Giulio.
Using the continuum is a good place to start, Di Giulio said, but it’s also important to appoint champions of mental health awareness within the organization.
Champions should familiarize themselves with the signs of mental health issues: burnout, signs of depression, or signs of anxiety. They should also have high-emotional intelligence and sensitivity towards others—this means your champions may not always need to be someone in a leadership role.
Loretta Brill, CEO of NX Knowledge Corporation, added that managers shouldn’t be expected to act as a psychologist, only to recognize the signs and offer up support.
“A lot of [leaders in the workplace] are making the assumption that the person has a mental illness before they go and have that conversation,” said Brill. She emphasized to leave that part to a trained mental health professional. Instead, their duty as a leader is to accommodate and ultimately help people be successful at their job.