Nova Scotia

Employers who stigmatize mental health playing 'dangerous game' with workers, says association

If you've ever felt the need to tell your employer you have the flu instead of asking for a mental health day, you're not alone, a specialist with the Canadian Mental Health Association said Tuesday.

Not all workplaces are safe spaces to discuss mental health issues

Mental health crises in the workplace could be prevented or handled more easily if employees are comfortable talking openly to employers, says the Canadian Mental Health Association. (tommaso79/Shutterstock)

If you've ever felt the need to tell your employer you have the flu instead of asking for a mental health day, you're not alone, according to a specialist with the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Katharine Coons, the organization's national workplace mental health specialist, said a lack of education creates stigma surrounding mental health issues, which can quickly lead to discrimination on the job and internalized emotions.

"It's this big cycle of stigma that needs to kind of be broken down so people can access the support that they need," Coons said in an interview Tuesday.

Without that support, Coons said employees don't feel safe discussing their mental health with their employer or co-workers. 

But she said there are things employers can do to work toward removing the stigma attached to mental health issues.

Empathy, compassion needed

Promotions and praise are usually tied to overworking, which Coons said can result in burnout.

She said it's a "dangerous game" to put workers in situations where they feel required to work longer hours to the detriment of their mental health.

"It can actually lead to higher levels of turnover, of absenteeism and disability claims for employers," said Coons.

She said the way an employer responds to a mental health concern from an employee is crucial.

If an employee asks for time off to take care of their mental health and that request is met with a negative reaction, it creates a ripple effect that discourages other workers from coming forward.

Coons said employers should respond "with empathy and compassion and understanding — the same way you would for someone that came with a physical health challenge or a physical illness."

Calls for a 'holistic approach' 

Jenna Brookfield, an occupational health and safety officer with CUPE in Nova Scotia, said some employers are more receptive than others, but in general, the outlook toward mental health in the workplace has a long way to go.

"Employers [are] seeing it as employees needing to be accommodated rather than a more holistic approach that would recognize that the workplace also impacts people's mental health, and can either be a strength in their mental health or a detracting factor," said Brookfield.

She said there are a lot of tools for employers to help them gauge their employees' well-being, like Guarding Minds at Work, an online survey that can show what potential mental health hazards exist in an organization so they can be addressed early on.

They are tools that CUPE, which represents some 700,000 members in various fields across Canada, is encouraging employers to try.

Brookfield said she hopes that moving forward, employers will become more proactive in addressing mental health in the workplace, instead of being reactive.

"We haven't gotten to a place yet where most workplaces are recognizing that there are preventative measures that can be taken within their own workplace to help support everyone's mental health and prevent mental injuries," she said.

With files from Portia Clark