Armed and ready – to tackle mental health

Canadian Armed Forces’ program – applicable to all workplaces – demonstrates that mental health varies from day-to-day
By Zachary Pedersen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2013

Stress, mental health in the workplace: In August, Lt. Col. Suzanne Bailey of the Canadian Armed Forces, and Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, led a discussion at a Strategic Capability Network event about mental health in the military and how its strategy can be adopted to every workplace.

We all have everyday mental health issues

Why is there still stigma around mental health?

Turning to the military for insight on workplace mental health may seem like an unusual strategy, but the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) know a lot about workplace extremes that are applicable to a broad number of settings, according to Nora Spinks, CEO of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family.

“Whereas in the past we used to take examples from corporate Canada and try to roll it around to other sectors, now we’re going to be learning from extreme stress and bringing it to your workplaces and that knowledge will help us set policies, strategies, practices, programs,” said Spinks, at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

In 2009, the CAF unveiled its Road to Mental Readiness program, which includes training for military members and their families.

“As a result of being in Afghanistan, we realized that we had to do a better job preparing our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women for the situations we were putting them in,” said Suzanne Bailey, a more than 25-year veteran of the CAF who helped develop the program.

“Then we recognized that it’s not fair to the soldiers to give them all of this information and teach them these skills before they get on a plane and go into a war zone. We need to actually layer it in throughout their career from the day they join to the day they retire — and also make it available to their families.”

The program uses military-specific language to give CAF members the ability to effectively communicate with their families before and after deployment.

When developing Road to Mental Readiness, Bailey and her team consulted with soldiers and ex-soldiers to determine what they would like to know about mental health.

“They said, ‘We don’t care what you call all the different illnesses, we don’t care how many there are; we want to know what it looks like, what it feels like and how to recognize it,’” she said.

Continuum model

Within the program, the CAF developed what it calls the mental health continuum model, which divides mental health into four categories and assigns each a colour. The healthiest end of the model is adaptive coping (green) followed by mild and reversible distress or functional impairment (yellow).

The model then distinguishes more severe, persistent injury or impairment (orange) and finally identifies clinical illnesses and disorders requiring more concentrated medical care (red).

“We’re not either all healthy or all ill — there’s a continuum,” said Bailey. “In fact, many of us function quite well in the yellow zone. The intent of this one is to normalize the fact that people move back and forth, that we can be affected by mental illness, but also to get the message out that you can recover from mental illness.”

The model is intended to encourage people to get help if they feel as though they may be moving into the orange or red categories. It also teaches people the behaviours of mental health problems that can be observed in others and what action can be taken.

When Bailey teaches the model to senior military leaders, she is frequently asked whether yellow is normal.

“I guess when you work 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, yellow is quite normal,” she said, comparing it to the long hours spent in workplaces across the country.

“But if we notice that we’re kind of straddling the line between orange and yellow, that’s probably an indicator that we’ve kind of pushed the limits a bit too far.”

Comparing mental illness to physical illness is one way the continuum educates CAF families about mental health. Falling under the yellow category can be equated to a sprained ankle, said Bailey.

Increasing sleep, eating properly and exercising can improve mental health and move individuals back into the green zone.

“If you’re in the orange and red zones, that’s probably the broken leg equivalent of mental health,” she said.

“Not many of us would try to Google and treat our own broken leg, yet with mental health, there is that temptation to fix it on our own because then nobody will have to know… but that’s where professional help is most effective and (decreases) the chances of recurring episodes in the future.”

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has already adapted CAF’s program into its own program, Opening Minds.

“They heard that our levels of stigma had decreased significantly in the military,” said Bailey.

“Some of our surveys have indicated that only about six per cent of Canadian Forces members report that they would think less of a buddy or a colleague who was affected by mental health issues.”

Trial implementation

The MHCC planned a trial implementation with Alberta Health Services and the Calgary Police Service in September and a new initiative, The Working Mind, will be tested in Nova Scotia sometime this fall with Capital District Health Authority and Nova Scotia Community College.

Because the model is simple, it can easily be applied to various workplaces, said Bailey.

“We don’t focus on specific illnesses and diagnoses,” she said. “It normalizes that we all go through ups and downs in our lives and if you take the right steps early on, you can recover.”

One of the biggest challenges with addressing mental health in the workplace is the fact there are now a number of generations with very different views on the issue, said Spinks.

“If you’re part of the boomer generation or older, your expectation is that there should be some kind of standard. Everybody would be treated the same,” she said.

“On to the ’80s and ’90s, everybody started to expect some choice. This is where we start talking about flexible work arrangements and alternative career paths. Now we’ve got the younger generation where it’s all about customization.”

Employers need to think about mental health like they do coffee, said Spinks. Employees 45 years and older would have had expectations met in their early career if they were served black coffee at a meeting. Moving into the 1980s and 1990s, employees expected some choice: cream, milk, sugar, sweetener.

“Today’s young generation is the tall-vanilla-latte-double-shot-no-foam-soy generation and they expect the same customization in their programs, in their policies and in their career paths.”

While it may be a struggle, employers need to recognize diversity in the workplace and adapt the way they address mental health, said Spinks.

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We all have everyday mental health issues (Organizational Effectiveness)

By Dave Crisp

As director of cross-Forces social work and a former military police officer, Suzanne Bailey clearly picked up the value of simplifying programs to suit staff needs.

Where previously social work senior staff used to lecture, using technical names and descriptions of types of mental health challenges, they decided to ask front-line soldiers what they needed in order to understand and improve things day-to-day.

The fancy name for what they developed is a “continuum of mental health.”

But to everyday you and me, this boils down to some pretty basic concepts that make total common sense. The materials they use underscore how straightforward this can become.

I’d summarize it like this: We all have mental health issues.

We all need to learn to cope with stress, overwork (to varying degrees), family problems, and fear (even in civilian organizations — including fear of job loss, being fired or “found out as a weak performer”). There are all kinds of anxieties about coping.

In every organization, one only has to ask what topics are popular to hear a list that includes stress management, time management, delegation and a whole range of “how to cope with a problem boss, co-worker or employee.”

If we think these issues aren’t impeding everyone’s productivity — including our own nearly every day, in one way or another — we are missing the point.

So what do we do? Should we focus on making people feel good? My old CEO used to call HR “social workers” — and he wasn’t being complimentary. Nora Spinks, one of the presenters at the session, and Bailey both say focus on performance.

Managers need resources they can turn to for advice on handling others or where to send people for advice on handling themselves, but a manager’s primary focus has to remain performance.

What could be simpler? Why haven’t we paid more attention to this in all these years of ignoring, avoiding and trying to get rid of people with mental health issues?

The answer is simple. There are two ways of identifying performance as a number one concern to an employee (a statement even Attila the Hun could agree with, or your CEO).

One is to say performance is all that counts, so if you have to fire people, beat them up mentally, force them, turn up the heat or whatever jargon serves in your organization — so be it.

Another is to say, as these two presenters did: Your objective is to find out why someone is slipping in performance and what can be done to help or how you can encourage them to help themselves.

All too often, we get caught in the wrong end of these dual ways of pressing for better performance. It is the same issue the Forces recognized when they decided to ask soldiers what they needed.

As individual bosses, we should ask employees what they need. We should mention we’ve noticed they seem stressed, tired or unable to focus the way they used to — and it’s affecting performance — but with a goal of asking what would help: “Remember to take your vacation,” “Call your EAP” or any one of dozens of possibilities from mundane to exotic.

Keep the focus on performance and insist that something gets done to improve it — but offer ways they can find help.

As we so easily say, it’s not rocket science but it is nonetheless difficult. Courageous conversations take courage (there’s plenty of fear you might get a bad response, make a situation worse, open a can of worms you can’t control or give someone an excuse to start slacking off).

We can all tell when someone is off their game. Maybe we try to kid about it but do we really want to confront the fact this has been going on for awhile and not improving?

Equally important, we know when we’re off our own game, when we’re not motivated or we’re procrastinating. Do we hide from a boss who’s likely to ask if we need help? Those can be mighty scary words.

The only way to encourage people to have these conversations and to begin pointing more people at ways to help themselves — before things get to a crisis point — is to make everyone, literally everyone, at the organization familiar with having such conversations and having discussions about what works for them, what others have tried and where help can be found — on an everyday basis.

If we really care about performance, it is the performance of all of us. Recognizing where we all are on the continuum of slipping at times and how to get excited and energized again, that’s a problem everyone faces.

Making it OK to talk about this stuff a lot more easily is a simple program that improves mental health all around, and productivity and performance with it — nothing terribly unique, unusual or weird, just everyday stuff, right? Let’s make it so.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Why is there still stigma around mental health? (Strategic Capability)

By Karen Gorsline

One in five Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

Organizations struggle to publicly acknowledge and accept mental health issues as a normal part of daily life. Recently, employers have been forced to take stress seriously as a result of growing feedback from employees, the impact on sick time and workers’ compensation claims.

Perhaps there has been an increase in stress in our daily lives, but the reality is individuals have always experienced stress — either inside or outside the workplace — that impacts performance.

In the past, mental health issues were either glossed over or dealt with as a character flaw. These are no longer acceptable options for organizations or society at large.

One of the greatest barriers to organizational performance is the stigma attached to mental health issues. But why?

It’s viewed as weakness: Individuals are embarrassed or try to hide behaviours related to mental illness. They either don’t know or don’t believe support is available or effective in addressing their problems. They believe they should or are actually told to “suck it up” or “tough it out.”

It’s viewed as a character flaw: We all have different personalities and personal characteristics. But often signs of mental health issues are swept away and ignored by phrases such as “That’s just the way he is” or “She’s a stress bunny.” When moods go beyond a normal range of fluctuation, it is a signal there may be an underlying illness.

It’s viewed as happening to someone else: Even those who can recognize mental health issues in others may not be aware of their own issues and how these issues impact others.

Mental health is a continuum from normal fluctuations in mood to various degrees of depression, panic, aggression or possibly addiction.

Being aware of behavioural indicators, and degrees of escalation in the signal behaviours, helps to address self-denial and point to appropriate responses.

It’s viewed as a personal, not a performance, issue: Unlike other illnesses, managers hesitate to address how the illness impacts performance and what adjustments are needed to support performance. Managers are afraid of becoming involved in the personal affairs of employees.

Yet unaddressed mental health issues are more than “personal.” Unaddressed issues can degenerate into more serious forms of illness that adversely impact a person’s ability to perform assigned duties and potentially the performance of others on the team.

What organizations can do to adapt

There are a number of steps organizations can take. These include:

Increase awareness of mental health issues: Celebrities have begun to “come out the closet” about their own mental health issues. Olympic medallist Clara Hughes, who has shown the courage to “start a conversation” about mental health, reminds us that “it is not only the joy that brings us together but the struggle.”

“Because I have shared both ends of my spectrum now, and have been on the receiving end of how people connect to this sharing, I can say in all honesty that there is no difference between the two. Because, after all, we are all human beings who experience highs and lows, struggle and bliss,” she said.

Organizations need to educate their employees that mental health issues are not an indicator of weakness or a character flaw.

Promote self-awareness in terms of a mental health continuum: Teach people in the organization how to recognize symptoms of eroding mental health in their own behaviour and how to address issues before they escalate.

Promote resiliency: Provide all employees with basic self-management skills to increase self-confidence and self-control. In the model used by the Canadian Armed Forces, this includes:

• goal-setting

• visualization

• self-talk

• arousal control.

Provide a framework for incidents: Provide a framework for looking at specific incidents in a factual, structured way. The framework should be widely known in the organization and could be used by an individual as self-reflection, and by colleagues or a manager as part of a performance discussion.

Redefine what “caring” means: Provide resources and support to encourage people to seek help. Create awareness that avoiding, making light of or ignoring problems is not considered caring.

For example, not calling a person after noon because they habitually have a “liquid lunch” does not demonstrate caring for the overall well-being of the individual or the organization.

Develop and educate colleagues and managers on how to deal with situations in a professional and caring way.

Help managers manage: Teach managers how to deal with mental health issues in performance terms.

Help them separate personal and performance aspects so they can be clear on performance issues, and approach resolution in a supportive way that is responsive to the individual and responsible in terms of managing the organization.

Keep it simple: To eliminate stigma, there must be wide-spread awareness and conversation across the organization. This means the messages and tools need to be accessible and easy to understand and remember.

Organizational culture can adapt to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues and accept they are simply part of the reality of working with human beings.

The key is to be open, clear, simple and consistent. As culture change goes, this change has a good potential of going “viral.”

After all, we all have a stake in the outcome.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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