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Stamping out mental health stigma leads to healthier workplaces, says safety advisor

Workplace Safety North marks Healthy Workplace Month through October
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Do you stand in judgment of others?

It’s a question Adrienne Allam challenges people to consider when talking about eliminating the stigma around mental illness from the workplace.

The certified psychological health and safety advisor with Workplace Safety North (WSN) addressed a mid-morning crowd on Oct. 27 as part of that organization’s webinar series marking October as Healthy Workplace Month.

“Human beings are built to size up each other really quickly, and our first impressions are influenced by a number of factors,” Allam said, noting it’s been suggested people take just a 10th of a second to make a first impression.

Age and gender, facial shape, vocal inflection, attractiveness, or even a person’s general emotional state can impact how one person perceives another for the first time.

“People tend to get attached to their first impressions very, very quickly, and once they’re formed it’s difficult to change their opinions, even if they’re presented a lot of evidence to the contrary.”

Unfortunately, that can stigmatize the person on the receiving end.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 6.7 million Canadians – one in five people in this country – will experience mental illness annually.

Of those who do, 60 per cent won’t seek help, which means that two out of three are “suffering in silence, fearing judgment, rejection and labelling,” Allam said.

“A lack of awareness, education, perception, and fear of people with mental illness can all result in stigma for the people that live with mental health conditions,” Allam said.

“Individuals may be treated as dangerous, as different, as if they’re somehow less than other people. The stigma is not fair, nor is it true, and it hurts.”

Data from the Mental Health Commission of Canada indicates that more than 500,000 Canadians will not go to work on any given week due to mental illness, Allam noted. The societal and economic impact of that is $51 billion.

Yet, historically, society has done a poor job of supporting those living with mental illness.

People with cancer, diabetes or arthritis aren’t questioned about the validity of their illness,  Allam said, but those with mental illness are often viewed as being weak or lazy, attention-seeking, or choosing to be unwell.

“No one chooses to have a mental illness, the same as no one chooses to have cancer, diabetes or arthritis,” Allem said.

“Stigma drives silence and silence prevents those who suffer from seeking help. Breaking the silence on mental illness encourages those who will benefit to seek help.”

In general, Allam advised people to be supportive, accepting, kind, and respectful toward those who are living with mental illness. And there are a number of practical actions people can take in the workplace to support them.

A good starting point is assessing their own attitudes and behaviours and how they might be contributing to the problem.

Too often, people use harmful language that reinforces negative connotations associated with mental illness.

For example, instead of saying someone ‘committed suicide,’ ‘died by suicide’ is preferred. Describing someone as being ‘in recovery’ is favoured over saying they ‘used to be an addict.’ And indicating that someone is ‘living with mental illness’ should replace the term ‘insane.’

Allam calls this “people-first language” that takes the emphasis away from the illness, disability or condition a person is living with.

“People-first language is respectful,” Allam said. “It does not label or stereotype the individual as being abnormal or dysfunctional.”

She encouraged employers to incorporate these types of conversations into their regular safety talks. By opening up discussion around mental health, it normalizes and helps to reduce the stigma around mental illness, she said.

If an employee has taken time off work to address an issue related to mental illness, Allam suggested there are a number of accommodations employers can make upon their return, including reducing the pace of work, allowing flexible hours, or adjusting job functions.

“Employees need to know they can talk to their manager or employer without the fear of repercussions,” she said.

For leaders looking at the bottom line, there’s even a business case for investing in psychologically healthy workplaces.

According to a recent study prepared by Deloitte, among Canadian businesses that implemented mental health programs, the return on investment (ROI) was $1.62 for every $1 that was invested, Allam said. After a mental health strategy had been in place for more than three years, the ROI increased to $2.18.

"Employers and leaders must be mindful of how their organizational practices and workplace  culture is affecting their employees; we need to normalize mental health by speaking openly about stress, work-life balance, and other issues,” Allam said.

“We need to create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces by providing tools, information, resources, and support to ensure that every person can go to work knowing that their organization recognizes the importance of their physical health and safety in the workplace, and we need to treat mental health the same as we do physical health."

A number of supports are available to those who may be struggling with their mental health or seeking more information about mental illness. Follow the links below for more information.

Bounce Back Ontarioa free program designed to help adults and youth manage low mood, depression and anxiety, stress or worry

Canadian Mental Health Association: a nationwide organization that promotes mental health and supports people recovering from mental illness

ConnexOntario Helpline/1-866-531-2600: an information and referral service focusing on mental health, addiction and problem gambling services in Ontario

2-1-1 Ontario/2-1-1: a resource for locating social, health and mental health programs in your community