The story behind mental health issues (Editor’s Notes)

Former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong’s saga of depression contains valuable lessons for employers
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/05/2012

The unveiling of a national mental health strategy (see “Workplaces have ‘role to play’ in mental health”) should be applauded. Employers need more tools in their arsenal to deal with the well-being of the workforce.

The psychological health of workers is closely linked to morale, productivity, efficiency and the bottom line. And, contrary to what some think, Canada is not experiencing a sudden mental health epidemic. It has just become more acceptable to talk openly about it, and more people are seeking assistance rather than suffering alone in silence.

This must be viewed as nothing but a positive trend for employers. Are some people abusing the system, using mental health as an excuse to access disability benefits? Undoubtedly. But the numbers are likely in line with all other types of malingering — such as bad backs, bum knees and whiplash. The fact mental health problems are harder to see doesn’t make them any less real.

And, thanks to new legislation in many jurisdictions across the country, shirking responsibility for the psychological health of employees is no longer an option. Bullying and harassment are not only unhealthy management styles, they can land firms in hot water.

A couple of weeks ago, a plain yellow, padded envelope landed on my desk. Inside was a book. This isn’t a rare occurrence but this one caught my attention. It was a trade paperback titled Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness, by Jan Wong.

You might not 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 at 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 2006. In her controversial article, Wong drew a link between the horrific school shootings in the province (the 1989 massacre at École Polytechnique, the 1992 shooting at Concordia University and the 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. Her employer 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.

There are 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, 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.

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