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Addressing mental health in the workplace

Posted by Laura Eley on: Thu, 27th June 2013 0 Comments

Human resources is a popular career choice amongst recent graduates, and for good reason: it offers plenty of co-worker interaction, while also affording opportunities to create meaningful relationships that can have serious impacts on the lives of employees.

One of these ways is through promoting and addressing mental health and the role that HR staff play in educating workers and intervening when mental health issues arise in the workplace.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental health illness at some point in their lives. In addition, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age, while only 49 per cent of those who feel they are suffering from depression or anxiety actually seek treatment. These debilitating conditions cross all demographics and professions, and require both understanding and acceptance to manage. The first step is often identifying the problem, and even that can be both a frightening and intimidating feat.

Increasing awareness

Kathy Jurgens, national program manager for Mental Health Works, (a company that trains for and educates about mental health in the workplace), explains that a general lack of understanding surrounding mental illness often leads to stigma and discrimination at work. She says “making sure that the managers and frontline supervisors are skilled in being able to recognize and address issues as they arise and not letting them fester” is a key strategy HR staff can implement to tackle mental health issues head on.

Increasing staff awareness of available mental health support, as well as training HR members in dealing with mental health crises, is an important step in creating an inclusive and safe working environment. Jurgens recommends specialized training for HR employees to deal with situations that include suicide intervention and mental health first aid.

“I think we have to have smaller conversations, not just closed door with one individual who might be struggling with the HR person,” Jurgens says, adding “we need to start talking about this [mental health] within our workplaces and normalize it.”

Opening the door

Many individuals that struggle with mental disorders are unaware of their conditions and may go through long periods of frustration and suffering in silence. With the proper knowledge and approach, human resources staff can serve as outlets and beacons of support for employees and direct them towards a path of recovery.

“The most important thing HR staff can do is be understanding,” says Melissa Henke, a human resources officer with the Town of Cobourg. She adds that creating a supportive environment is imperative to building a positive work space and that access to the Employee Assistance Program, availability of a flexible schedule, and having an open door policy are all key elements of a successful HR department.

Typically, struggles with mental health have a direct impact on the attendance and performance of effected employees. This can be challenging for human resources staff, Henke explains, as health issues including stress, depression, and anxiety are difficult to anticipate and “may require several different or multi-layer approaches of care and a flexible return to work program.”

While mental illness can pose complex difficulties for individuals and their places of employment, emphasizing acceptance and support is instrumental in identification and treatment. Like the heart or the eyes, the mind can also experience poor health and require medical intervention to heal. Raising awareness instead of eyebrows has the potential to not only change the lives of employees, but save them.


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