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Add this to your summer reading list

Former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong’s saga of depression contains valuable lessons for employers

By Todd Humber

It’s the unofficial start of summer. Canadians are already starting to dust off the coolers and pack up their bags in anticipation of the Victoria Day long weekend.

Many of us are also packing a novel (or loading up our Kindles and Kobos) in between all the Bermuda shorts, sunscreen and sandals before we head off to our backyards, cottages, cabins and campsites.

But when we’re soaking in the lazy days of summer, we’re not reading enough books. I’m not talking about the latest tome from John Irving or the latest thriller from Stephen King. (Though, read those too — I thoroughly enjoyed 11/22/63, King’s saga of a time traveller who goes back and attempts to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.)

I mean business books. And I’m just as guilty as any other professional — perhaps even moreso, given the fact that a lot of books land, unsolicited, on my desk.

My shelves are lined with titles ranging from The Pink Slip Chronicles, an offering from employment lawyer Brian Grosman featuring real-life stories about job loss, to Fixing the Game, a look at what capitalism can learn from the National Football League (NFL), by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. From where I sit I can see two books on Toyota’s culture and countless titles on talent management, networking and coaching. There’s a copy of Retooling HR: Using Proven Business Tools to Make Better Decisions About Talent, by John Boudreau, professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

There are books on metrics, and plenty of titles from Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business (full disclosure: they’re also the publishers of Canadian HR Reporter) including The Mind Field by Tom Tavares, Employee Performance Scorecards by Les Dakens and Social HR by Harpaul Sambhi.

Sure, they’re not as much fun to read as Irving. But every book you can soak in adds to your professional depth. I’ve never read a book that I didn’t take something from. Not to say you will (or should) always agree with the author, but it never hurts to hear new perspectives and different takes.

And sometimes, on that rare occasion, a book can stop you in your tracks. That happened to me two weeks ago when a plain yellow padded envelope landed on my desk. Inside was a blue trade paperback, titled Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and Yes, Happiness, by Jan Wong.

You probably don’t know Wong.

I do.

Not personally. We’ve never worked together. We’ve never spoken.

But I know her story. I suspect all journalists do. And every employer, and every HR professional, should too.

Wong was a reporter for the Globe and Mail, and a good one at that. But her life was turned upside down after she was dispatched to cover the school shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College. 

In her article, Wong drew a link between the horrific school shootings in the province (the 1989 massacre at Ecole Polytechnique, the 1992 shooting at Concordia University and the 2006 Dawson College incident) and the fact the perpetrators in each case were not pure Québécois, and perhaps had been alienated and felt marginalized.

The Dawson College article isn’t why Wong’s story is interesting. It’s what happened afterwards. The paper refused to stand by her, despite the fact its editors approved the story. Wong, by all accounts a confident, outgoing person, started to sink into depression. What followed was a struggle between her, her employer and its insurance provider. She was eventually fired, and a long and costly legal battle followed before a settlement was reached. (For more about Wong's story, see the article from Canadian Lawyer, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter.)

There were no winners here. That’s why it’s such a must-read. Not only does it outline the ramifications for ignoring mental health in the workplace, but it also reveals the personal toll it takes on an individual. There are people behind all these numbers. Wong is just one of them, but she’s had the courage to speak up and write about her experience.

We can all learn from her story.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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