Conversations about mental health in the workplace have broadened in recent years, providing greater hope for those in need.
But actual tools to help spread the word are few and far between. That’s why Dalhousie University in Halifax was among 100 employers that signed up with Partners for Mental Health and its “Not Myself Today” campaign in 2013.
The initiative aims to tackle the stigma and misunderstandings around mental illness. It provides participating employers with an activity guide, tools and resources to start conversations in the workplace and organize workplace events and activities to promote a mentally healthy workplace.
“(Mental illness) has a significant impact on the workplace, whether that’s lost productivity or workplace conflict that arises as a result of people not understanding it or general dissatisfaction with work… so it’s important to us as an employer to pay attention to it and to do what we can to support people who are experiencing it, in whatever way,” says Katherine Frank, assistant vice-president of HR at Dalhousie University.
“The hope is by raising awareness and reducing stigma, that we can have conversations and come up with ways to support people who are experiencing mental illness and, ultimately, to make a better workplace.”
Creating awareness on campus
To promote the initiative and encourage discussion, the university ran daily features in the administration-run newspaper Dal News, made announcements in its daily email notice board and created blog posts and targeted emails. Displays, such as a wall installation, were put up in high-traffic areas at the school.
“We wanted to make sure we hit as broad a range of people as we could and that all our different resources and doors that people might go in to seek help have awareness of these issues and have some resources available to them,” says Frank.
Mood buttons, pens, posters and stickers from the tool kit were also handed out. The buttons feature a variety of moods such as “stuck,” “confused,” “down” or “not myself today.”
Some people really embraced this approach, she says.
“There’s a certain amount of playfulness with it that’s actually helpful. It lightens it a little bit — it’s not the heavy duty ‘Here’s the symptoms of mental illness and what you need to look for,’ it’s more about ‘Hey, this is how we feel some days and this is the impact it might have on us when we’re feeling this way. How do you react when you see me wearing this particular feeling?’”
While employee participation might not have been high, it can be difficult to get people to attend specific events related to mental health, possibly because of the stigma, says Frank.
“There is some work to be done still on normalizing this,” she says. “Part of that is to get people from all levels of the organization out, including my level, so if I’m seen attending these events, and others, we just try and normalize it.”
And Dalhousie University is planning to do the campaign again this year, along with its other mental health initiatives.
“It’s one of many different options and it’s good to have different things because not everything works for everybody,” says Frank.
“Some people wouldn’t like some of the playfulness around this perhaps and would respond better to information sessions that are much more structured on different topics. But, from my perspective, you always want to offer an array of options, so this is a good one — it’s helpful.”
Coming back for more
Ninety per cent of the employers that participated in 2013 plan to do so again in 2014, according to Jeff Moat, president of Partners for Mental Health in Ottawa.
“By equipping organizations with tangible tools that they can use to not just raise awareness but to really get people engaged in a conversation around this, it goes a long way to start to chip away at the stigma that exists,” he says.
“This notion of not feeling oneself is something that we’ve all felt and if you’ve had one of those days, imagine what is must be like to experience it every day… at a much greater magnitude and then face the discrimination and lack of support that exists.”
For 2014, Partners for Mental Health will provide participating employers with conversation cards that can be used in group or one-on-one settings. The cards present people with common workplace scenarios. For example, one would look at how colleagues should respond when a co-worker returns from a lengthy absence.
“What it does is it gets people talking about common, everyday situations… and opens up a dialogue around how we should be responding and acting towards these very real situations,” says Moat.
ATB puts people first
ATB Financial will participate in the campaign again in 2014. The financial institution signed on in 2013 looking to build awareness and understanding of mental health issues.
“We realized there were some gaps in the ability to talk about these things, and this campaign seemed to come along at a perfect time… it helps me do my job,” says Kerilee Snatenchuk, director of people and culture at ATB Financial in Calgary.
Each of the 478 team leaders were given a campaign kit that had been adapted by ATB to include its internal brand “People First.” The kits included buttons, posters and a conversation guide with facts and scripts to host a “coffee talk” about mental health. The coffee talks were promoted through the organization’s intranet and employees also received links to other mental health resources.
The reaction was positive, with people especially liking the button concept, says Snatenchuk.
“It was meant to be kind of fun and lighter than the heaviness that people feel when they hear ‘mental health,’ so definitely those buttons were fantastic… and a tool for leaders.”
But ATB also realized it would be a good idea to get senior leaders more involved, so it’s hoping to feature them in a short video introducing the materials.
“For sure our learning is just communicate in more ways and maybe have most senior leaders participate in that,” she says.
The initiative also led to the creation of a mental health action team at ATB.
“That team’s goal is to take the learnings we had from the Not Myself Today campaign and to build education and tools to move this forward into the organization, so to start drilling it deeper into our organization,” says Snatenchuk.
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