Highlighting ‘what mental health really is’ during Mental Health Week
We often automatically say “fine” when someone at work asks how we are. Yet the same question can trigger a more meaningful exchange – one that acknowledges how we truly feel and whether we reach out when we need support. What are some of the conditions that are conducive to opening up at our place of work on days when we’re not feeling like ourselves?
For Dr. Patrick Smith, a clinical psychologist and national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), “a workplace culture that is open and actively embraces and promotes mental health can have a big impact on people’s ability to talk about mental health and feel supported.”
For 67 years, the CMHA Mental Health Week has amplified the importance of speaking out about mental health. This year, the message is, “Get loud about what mental health really is,” says Dr. Smith. “One in five Canadians has a mental illness – but five in five have mental health.”
Mental health is a continuum. And all Canadians – regardless of whether they’ve had a mental illness diagnosis or not – can place themselves on the continuum that ranges from languishing to thriving, he explains. “Everyone experiences different states of mental health, which can be affected by a range of factors, including the lack of sunshine, for example, or any kind of stressor.”
Some of the biggest impact typically originates in the environment where we spend most of our time, such as school for children or work for adults, says Dr. Smith. “The workplace can be a significant contributor to positive mental health or, alternatively, mental health challenges.”
Jordan Friesen, national associate director, Workplace Mental Health, CMHA, agrees that workplaces play a significant role. “Not only do most Canadians spend a large amount of time at work, but many say that work is their number one stressor,” he says. “Leading organizations across the country are implementing the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which is the first of its kind in the world. It offers voluntary guidelines, tools and resources for promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work.”
Workplaces have the opportunity to provide an environment where all team members can be their best selves, says Dr. Smith, who recommends normalizing discussions about mental health issues. “People have no problem sharing their experiences when they or their family members experience heart disease or cancer,” he says. “But what if their son or daughter struggles with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? Do they have the same level of comfort talking about mental illness?”
Friesen says that one of the main barriers to talking about mental health challenges is fear of negative impacts. That’s why Not Myself Today, a national workplace mental health initiative by CMHA, draws attention to the fact that we all have days when we don’t feel like ourselves, he explains. “It starts with the recognition that it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions. When we can identify and understand how we are feeling and acknowledge how others are feeling, then we can take better care of ourselves and each other.”
Not Myself Today is designed to be accessible, approachable and positive, according to Friesen.
“We educate employees and employers on various topics related to mental health, and provide guidance, hands-on engagement and activities for improving their own well-being, for example, with stress management, resilience building and emotional intelligence,” he says. “We support workplaces that want to create spaces where everyone feels comfortable being open and where nobody is stigmatized for dealing with mental health challenges.”
The good news is that with the right commitment, which involves clear leadership and engagement throughout the whole organization, there can be a palpable shift in the work culture. Partners participating in the Not Myself Today initiative report experiencing increased awareness and understanding of mental health issues and a more supportive work environment.
Shelley DaCosta, vice-president, Total Rewards and Employee Experience at Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada (RSA), says, “Our experience with the Not Myself Today campaign at RSA was nothing short of excellent. The introduction of the [initiative] started important conversations among friends, co-workers, leaders and teams on the subject of mental health and wellness in the workplace.” She adds that Not Myself Today will continue to be a key part of RSA’s overall wellness and mental health strategy.
“When a workplace actively embraces positive mental health promotion and fosters a mentally healthy workplace, that isn’t only good for employees and the work culture, it also positively affects the bottom line,” says Dr. Smith.
Mental health is costing Canada approximately $51-billion, with more than half of that number directly affecting workplaces in terms of absenteeism, turnover and high use of benefits, so protecting and improving the mental health of employees makes good practical sense, says Friesen.
“According to the World Health Organization, there is no health without mental health,” he says, adding that the positive impact of healthy and safe workplaces can carry over to affect families, friends and communities – towards a more caring and inclusive society.
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