Hill staffers lack support to deal with job stress: MP

Parliament Hill, like many workplaces, isn't doing a good job of talking about job stress and mental illness, according to NDP MP Charlie Angus.

'We haven't really talked about these issues very well, in Parliament or in any other workplace'

NDP MP Charlie Angus says Parliament Hill is a high-stress environment and that more needs to be done to protect staffers, especially young newcomers, from burnout. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Employers on Parliament Hill aren't doing a good enough job of talking about job stress and mental illness, according to NDP MP Charlie Angus.

His comments come in response to the story of Paul Wernick, a 26-year-old Ottawa man who twice tried to take his own life while working as an executive assistant to Liberal MP Francis Drouin.

Wernick resigned earlier this week and is raising awareness about high-stress working conditions, lax job security and the need for better mental health mentorship on the Hill.

"No one wants to say they couldn't handle the pressure. It's difficult," Wernick told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Tuesday. "Especially on the Hill, there's a kind of tough-it-out, drink to feel better, road warrior, I'll take whatever comes at me [mentality]."

"I think [Wernick] describes the life of everyone who comes into Parliament," Angus later told Ottawa Morning.

"You're overwhelmed. I remember when I was elected it was like being given a car, and as soon as you get in it takes off at 500 miles an hour and you're screaming, 'Where's the brakes?' And you realize there are no breaks. You just finally learn to drive it at that speed."

Paul Wernick, a former executive assistant to Liberal MP Francis Drouin, twice tried to take his own life and is now calling for changes to workplace culture on the Hill. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Young staffers need more support

It's hard for rookie MPs, who are learning to juggle committee work and meetings with constituents and lobbyists to suddenly have to manage a team of staff and make sure their needs are being met, Angus said.

Staffers for the NDP caucus benefit from a collective agreement, which Angus said some other parties don't have, providing some job security in an otherwise precarious employment situation.

"It is one of the few jobs where all the staff, like their MP, can lose their job in an election," he said.

"I think what's concerning is that we haven't really talked about these issues very well, in Parliament or in any other workplace. And people do break and people are afraid to be seen as weak, because certainly in politics — which is seen as very cut-throat and you've got to be tough to survive — a lot of young staffers come very idealistic and they're not given the kind of support they need."

While there is an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP), Angus said not enough people know about it or use it.

"I think we need to talk about how we handle this very high-stress life, especially with young idealistic staffers who are just out of school and they want to make a difference, they're believers, and some of them just can't make it.

"There's ways of dealing with this but you need, I think, a more coherent approach.... You have to pace yourself, but we need mentors to do this. We need supports."

Need help? Here are some local resources:

Ottawa Distress Centre Line: 613-238-3311 in Ottawa and Gatineau. 1-866-676-1080 in the MRCs La Vallée-de-la-Gatineau, Les Collines-de-l'Outaouais, Papineau and Pontiac.

Mental Health Crisis Line: 613-722-6914, or 1-866-996-0991 outside Ottawa.

Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario: 613-260-2360, or 1-877-377-7775 outside Ottawa.

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868.

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning