A few years back, radio talk show host Jon McComb realized he was suffering from depression — and probably had been all his life. The situation became critical when he experienced serious anxiety and panic attacks on the air.
“It got to a point where I just couldn’t deal with being on the radio anymore. I was hyperventilating, my palms were sweaty all the time, I was having the classic panic attack where you feel like your heart is going to jump out of your chest and the only solution is to get out of the situation that you’re in — i.e., run out the door, which is also a bit of a career-limiting move.”
McComb finally told his boss at CKNW, a Vancouver-based radio station owned by Corus Entertainment, he couldn’t do his job anymore. And his boss was supportive, telling McComb he should take as long as he needed to recover and HR and the insurance company would help sort out the long-term disability.
“As soon as I gave up control and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ everything fell into place,” said McComb. “All of the things I had built up in my mind as things to worry about didn’t come through.”
McComb ended up taking seven months off before he returned to the station.
“It was a little nerve-racking off the top but it all worked out fine. And my family still loves me and my friends are still my friends, and I still do a radio show.”
But not all employees do as well as McComb. Employees who suffer from depression receive varying levels of support at work, according to a report from the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, based on a survey of 6,624 employees and managers.
Co-workers (61 per cent) and the direct boss (52 per cent) are considered the most supportive, while unions (42 per cent) and HR (40 per cent) show the least amount of support.
It might be the case that an employee has a closer relationship with her immediate boss, so she’d be more likely to seek support there, said Mike Schwartz, executive director of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.
“It might be just that dynamic or it might be a reality that HR is not as engaged in this as it should be,” he said. “There’s some interesting questions in there for the HR community and ‘How can we continue to effect changes in some of those dynamics and make progress there?’”
HR and managers or supervisors have different roles, said Darrell Burnham, executive director of Coast Mental Health in Vancouver.
“HR, being off the shop floor, could be a very good, confidential support for a person who doesn’t know how to talk about it, so it’s safe to talk about work or whatever.”
HR also needs to have a good relationship with and be a resource for supervisors, as they will be the ones who see firsthand any changes in behaviour among staff, such as an employee who’s become distant, confused or error-prone. And supervisors can be a wonderful support if workers trust them and there is a good relationship there, he said.
But leaders need to send the message to employees that they’ll be there for people who are depressed, said Burnham, which can mean talking about mental health issues at staff meetings a couple of times per year and explaining what resources are available.
Four in five (84 per cent) managers and supervisors feel it’s part of their job to intervene if an employee is showing signs of depression, and 55 per cent have done so, found Great-West Life.
Two-thirds said they have a strong grasp of policies at their company regarding mental health (up 20 percentage points from five years ago) while 62 per cent know what to do when someone who reports to them has depression (up seven points).
“Those are really exciting findings that the HR folks, I expect in many organizations, have played a big role in that change. That’s really encouraging,” said Schwartz.
However, while leaders’ hearts are in the right place, “my sense is their self-perception of their abilities is maybe higher than reality,” he said, citing the results of another Great-West Life survey that looked at the emotional intelligence of leaders.
Encouragingly, more managers and supervisors (31 per cent) have received training to help them identify and deal with employees who exhibit signs of depression, up from 18 per cent five years ago, found the survey.
But 63 per cent said the training could be better, up from 45 per cent in 2007, and 43 per cent would like to receive more support from upper management while another 43 per cent would like more support from HR.
Training is mostly targeted at HR people, which is almost preaching to the converted, said Burnham.
“HR understands it and they’ve understood it for years because they’re also the ones who end up with the pickle, the difficult situation they’re managing with an employee who’s obviously not doing well because the mental illness has got to a point where it’s actually spilled out into the workforce, the workplace, and depending on the nature of the illness, it can be embarrassing for the employer, the employee, the customers, and it becomes a crisis.”
The real challenge is reaching line supervisors or direct managers, he said.
“It’s actually a culture change that needs to happen, so it’s not just training the manager, it’s not just training the HR department, it’s having a better culture in the work site so people would be free to talk about it, and not feel they’re going to be discriminated against or bullied or harassed or embarrassed as a result.”
Suspicions remain around true nature of depression
However, obstacles remain for employees who are depressed, found the survey. Seventy-one per cent of respondents said there needs to be a way to verify someone is actually suffering from depression before they are given special consideration at work.
But mental illnesses are not easily diagnosed, said Burnham.
“You can’t validate it — where’s the blood test for depression?” he said, adding it can take several years for someone to be properly diagnosed and treated, and often the diagnosis changes over time as more is learned about the person.
It’s also a challenge for HR and leaders when a person with a mental illness takes time off work — and employees aren’t told the reason, said Schwartz.
“No one knows why (she’s gone) but they all have suspicions, there’s this whole stigma and there’s this isolation and silence. And the nature of accommodations, if they’re not understood, it can cause resentment and it’s a very challenging situation all around. So it’s not just a matter of education for leaders but education for the entire employee base helps a lot as well.”
McComb had several reservations about revealing his illness.
“I became very concerned that I would lose my job, would lose my friends, that I would be ostracized and if not ostracized outright, that my reputation would be destroyed,” he said.
More than one in 10 (15 per cent) of respondents to the Great-West Life survey felt people who are depressed could just snap out of it if they really wanted to while 13 per cent said people choose to be depressed.
But McComb certainly knows you don’t choose to be depressed. Reluctant to take medication, he tried alternative therapies such as mega-vitamins and herbal remedies to feel better.
“I went on a huge exercise regimen, working out six days a week, I had my chakras realigned, I had my aura cleansed, I sat with my inner child — and absolutely none of it worked,” he said.
“I treated it almost like a hobby, but if I had massive heart disease or I had my liver blown up or my kidney had shut down, I sure as hell wouldn’t have tried to solve it by going on the Internet. I would have gone to the doctor and there would have been no hint of stigma or any of that sort of stuff.”
Stigma is still a huge issue, said Schwartz.
“That’s one area where HR can focus, increasing the overall awareness levels in their organization and the knowledge and education levels of their leaders to better address these issues.”
Stigma is still a problem but it’s improving, said McComb, who takes medication for his depression and sees a specialist once or twice per year.
“It’s so difficult because an employer will think, ‘Well, they’re just not carrying their weight’ or whatever and maybe with some people that’s true. But for somebody who’s well and truly suffering from depression, it’s far deeper than that and far more complex than that.”
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