A Conversation Worth Having

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How to talk about mental health in the workplace

By: Peter Caulfield

Thanks in part to some high-profile media campaigns, there is growing support in Canada for loosening up a little bit and starting a conversation in the workplace about a subject that is difficult for most of us – our mental health.

In fact, there has been an evolution in the way mental health is looked at in the workplace, says Jonathan Buchanan, director of information and public affairs for the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia (AME). “The focus is moving away from the individual to the team and the interpersonal relationships there. The new emphasis on the group means that nobody is excluded.”

Health – both physical and mental – and safety are all interrelated. “They’re no longer seen separately,” Buchanan says. “And the natural environment, which figures so prominently in mineral exploration, also needs to be taken into account.”

AME certainly takes mental health seriously. In May 2017, AME partnered with the BC Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA BC) at the mineral exploration association’s 25th annual golf tournament. The event raised $5,000 for CMHA BC’s workplace mental health programs.

CMHA BC, which has 14 branches across the province, has had workplace mental health programs for almost 20 years.

Gord Menelaws, a CMHA BC trainer at Teck Metals Limited’s Trail operations, delivers the Safe and Sound program. (Menelaws is also co-ordinator of Teck Trail’s Inspiring Wellness and Learning program, which promotes physical activities for employees and their families.)

“Safe and Sound is a three-hour program for supervisors, senior union officials and occupational health and safety professionals at heavy industry work sites,” says Menelaws. “One of the program activities is role-playing, to encourage our supervisors to notice things out of the ordinary with the members of their team.” Menelaws also does a 45-minute version of Safe and Sound for employees called Crew Talk.

He says there are three steps to starting a conversation with someone at work who might be having difficulties related to mental health. “First, I would say, ‘I’ve noticed some changes in your behaviour,’” Menelaws says. “Then I would ask, ‘I’ve been wondering if everything is OK with you?’ And then finally, ‘How can I help you?’”

Many people with mental health issues aren’t aware of the multitude of resources that are available to them.

“When you’re talking to someone who’s going through a tough time, don’t push them,” Menelaws says. “Just steer them in the right direction. And don’t get frustrated if they don’t accept your offer of help immediately. They might wait a while and go for help on their own, without you knowing about it.”

Menelaws says the key to mental health is balance. “Follow the ‘fill your tank’ model,” he says. “Do the things that make you feel good and you’ll maintain your inner balance. That way you’ll be better able to deal with the stress that arises when you face difficulties.”

CMHA BC consultant and senior trainer Margaret Tebbutt says mental health exists along a continuum that ranges back from healthy, to reacting, to injured and, finally, to ill.

“It isn’t the job of managers to counsel, but they should be on the lookout for changes in the behaviour of people on their teams,” says Tebbutt. “And, under the B.C. Human Rights Code, they have a responsibility to provide modifications to allow a person with a disability to stay at work or return to work.”

Tebbutt says changes in a person’s workplace behaviour over a period of time could indicate mental health issues. Such changes include errors or accidents, coming to work either earlier or later than usual, not taking any breaks, and unusual dress or appearance.

“Start a conversation by talking about what’s gone well at work in the past,” Tebbutt says. “From there, bring up some specific behavioural changes that you’ve noticed.”

Give the other person lots of time to respond. “Listen quietly to what they have to say,” Tebbutt says. “You don’t need to agree with them, just listen to them while they talk.”

Vancouver psychoanalyst and registered psychologist Lynn Superstein-Raber says working in a new environment, such as a mineral exploration camp, can affect our mental health.

“Humans are creatures of regularity and relationality,” she says. “Being cut off from family, friends and regular networks of people can be bad for us. And too much intense contact with the same individuals can lead to mood changes, too.”

Isolation, irregular work schedules and anything else that upsets our regular routines can make us lose our natural inner balance, says Superstein-Raber. “That can lead to anxiety, depression and such adjustment disorders as substance abuse, too much TV or internet, and eating or sleeping too much or too little.”

Darcy Baker, president of Equity Exploration Consultants Ltd. in Vancouver, says that while mineral exploration work camps can be stressful, they also have a positive side that needs to be recognized. “It can also be good for a person’s mental health to have a change of scene and a break from the routine of office work in the city,” Baker says. “Some people look forward to the change. It rejuvenates them to get outside and work in the fresh air.”

Dave Delong, Teck’s director, human resources, base metals, North America, says a core value at the company is raising awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace. “We’ve been making great progress,” says Delong. “Mental health is being talked about more openly and more often, and more people are getting help early if it’s needed.”

Delong says Teck provides the resources for supervisors to support the company’s employees. A prime example is the company’s Employee and Family Assistance Programs, which provide mental-health-related resources and support. Other resources include support for stress arising from grief and loss, crisis situations, relationship and family tensions, and workplace challenges; nutrition advice; and financial and legal advice.

“Teck is a very progressive company,” says Delong. “We take mental health seriously and we address any mental health challenges that come up with our employees. I’m very proud of what we’ve done here.”

 

Resources

CMHA BC Programs and Presentations

More than two out of five Canadians will experience challenges with their mental health during their working years. Of that number, two out of three people suffer in silence, fearing judgment rather than seeking treatment.

The Canadian Mental Health Association works with employers and employees to see they get the support they need. Both receive a rich return on their investment – a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. To find out more or book CMHA BC’s workplace mental health programs, call 604-678-8952.

All-staff presentations

CMHA BC can customize a presentation for any workplace, either as a presentation or a workshop. Topics for larger staff groups may include awareness of mental health at work, resiliency and social support.

Union and occupational health and safety representatives

Safe and Sound: Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace offers two components: Supervisor Training and Crew Talks.

Supervisor Training shows supervisors and leaders how to promote mental health and address mental illness, including addiction, in the workplace from a health and safety perspective. The workshop includes a review of local policies and regulations, and provides an overview of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

In Mental Health Crew Talks, participants learn about the risk and protective factors associated with mental illness. They hear a personal story and learn how to start a conversation with fellow workers who may be showing signs of illness.

Front-line workers

In Responding with Respect, front-line staff can get the tools they need to work with clients who may be experiencing distress due to mental illness or stress. Participants learn how to recognize those who may be experiencing a mental health problem, and how to respond to them and refer them to further help.

Mental Health First Aid

Team members learn how to provide initial help to people who are showing signs of a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.

Suicide prevention training

Most people with thoughts of suicide don’t truly want to die, but are struggling with pain in their lives. Staff can become more comfortable asking employees or colleagues about suicide and acquire the tools they need to intervene and access support. Choose between a three-hour SafeTALK workshop and a two-day ASIST suicide intervention and suicide first aid training.

Leaders and managers

Addressing the mental health needs of workers starts with training managers to notice when employees are struggling. Mental Health Works gives them the tools and skills they need to open a dialogue with employees who are showing signs of distress or being overwhelmed.

Bounce Back: For adults and youth

Available for free across B.C., Bounce Back teaches effective skills to help individuals (aged 15 and up) overcome symptoms of mild to moderate depression or anxiety, and improve their mental health. Participants can learn skills to help combat unhelpful thinking, manage worry and anxiety, and become more active and assertive. Bounce Back offers three forms of help: the Bounce Back Today video, Bounce Back Coaching and Bounce Back Online.

National Bottom Line Conference

The CMHA’s annual National Bottom Line Conference brings together business leaders, union representatives, policy-makers, researchers and workers to improve mental health in Canadian workplaces. The 2018 conference, called “Navigating the New Workplace,” will be held March 13 to 14, 2018, in Vancouver. BottomLineConference.ca