‘Is he for real?’

Despite stigma reductions, there are still those – including managers – who doubt the veracity of mental illness
By Mary Ann Baynton
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/20/2015

Cynicism can be defined as a distrust of the intentions of others, and a belief others are not representing their true motives. We see this cynicism in the workplace in many situations, and certainly in instances where a co-worker is living with mental illness. 

Despite advances over the last decade in reducing stigma, there are still those who doubt mental illness is “real,” believing people living with mental illness are somehow faking it or accommodations equate to special treatment. 


Case in point: One-half of managers and supervisors believed “whining or crying at work is a ploy to get attention,” according to a 2012 Ipsos Reid survey on emotional intelligence in the workplace, commissioned by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.


An additional 15 per cent of all respondents (supervisors and employees) said they believed “people who are depressed could just snap out of it if they really wanted to.”


Of course, this is simply not true. Many of us — including the cynics — can expect to experience a mental illness at some point in our working careers. One in five (21.4 per cent) of the working-age population (20 to 64 years of age) was living with a mental health problem or illness in 2011, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). It is also projected that by the time people reached 40 years of age, one in two people in Canada will have had, or will have, a mental illness, according to the commission.


While changing the way a cynic thinks can be a challenge, the following four strategies can help  turn down the volume on toxic attitudes.


Acknowledge concerns

In some instances, a cynical manager or employer may consider the duty to accommodate someone with a mental illness to be challenging, inconvenient or unwarranted — particularly if they feel the employee is faking it.


Forty per cent of all respondents to the Ipsos-Reid survey agreed with the statement “It is not fair to treat workers differently based on their individual strengths and weaknesses.”  


It is important not to admonish or judge the managers who find these situations challenging, as that may simply reinforce their negative attitudes or drive their opinions underground, which will then seep out in their interactions with workers. Rather, it is important to acknowledge their concerns while still making it clear the organization is committed to providing a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. 


Support managers in growing knowledge, emotional intelligence 

Managers have sometimes been promoted to their positions by virtue of their technical skills or business acumen. Today, there is a growing recognition of the need to support leaders in growing and enhancing their knowledge in other areas, including emotional intelligence (EI).


 Emotional intelligence encompasses skill areas such as the ability to understand and deal with other people’s emotions and reactions, understanding and managing personal reactions, and learning how to communicate effectively, including conflict resolution. 


While a majority of managers and supervisors agree they have a responsibility to intervene if they suspect a worker is experiencing a mental health issue, 22 per cent of respondents disagreed, according to the Ipsos Reid survey.


This may be tied to a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Nearly one-third of managers (28 per cent) said they are uncomfortable when workers discuss their emotions; 23 per cent admitted they have a hard time understanding where workers are coming from when they are upset; and 24 per cent are not sure what to say or do when a worker is upset.


Education and training to increase understanding of mental health issues, and to improve emotional intelligence, can help decrease cynicism from both managers and co-workers. When leaders increase their own EI, it can raise the EI quotient of the entire team.


Demonstrate commitment to psychologically healthy workplace

The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as one that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways. 


To put it plainly, psychological health and safety in the workplace comes down to the way we treat each other and interact while at work. This means addressing cynical attitudes and behaviours in the workplace can contribute to a safer environment for everyone, not just those who are seeking accommodation.


Creating and maintaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. For those employers that don’t know where to begin, the standard provides a framework to help guide employers as they work toward psychologically safe and healthy work environments.


Show what’s possible through accommodation

The majority of employees with mental illnesses can find ways to manage their condition and continue to do the jobs they enjoy and are qualified to do. The best way to reduce frustration, discrimination and stigma is to directly address the issue of accommodation and demonstrate how supporting an employee with mental health-related issues can benefit everyone. 


This relates to the W.I.F.M. principle or “What’s In It For Me?” 


• The employee wins because individuals living with a mental illness who remain a contributing member of a work team are much more likely to recover and even thrive. 


• Co-workers and managers win — even the cynics — because the individual living with a mental illness has a greater opportunity to continue working to his full capacity, maintaining productivity levels across the team. 


• Business wins because leaves of absence may be avoided or shortened.


The key to supporting employee success is focusing conversations on what needs to be accomplished, rather than on what hasn’t been done well. This shift in focus can help even cynical managers to better support the employee, as the emphasis is on brainstorming solutions and strategies that support the employee to get work done effectively, rather than what the cynic may have previously perceived as “excusing” the employee from performing her duties. 


Few managers, however, are comfortable with this type of conversation. They may turn to a health-care professional, hoping to gain direction about what supports the employee needs. But a health-care professional rarely knows enough about the work environment or job demands to offer solutions that are targeted to the realities of the work situation. 


To address this need, tools such as Supporting Employee Success — A Tool to Plan Accommodations from the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health can help.


Supporting employee success

This resource essentially leads managers and employees through what might have been an uncomfortable, personal or emotional conversation and focuses it on workplace issues in an objective and non-judgmental way. 


It avoids private medical information altogether and instead considers such job expectations as the ability to meet deadlines, dealing with overlapping tasks, receiving critical feedback and interacting productively with others in the workplace. 


This kind of tool allows for the manager or employer to describe the level of need for each expectation, for the employee to state his current ability, and for a trusted third party (usually the health-care provider) to review potential solutions that have been used to address the related issues for other employees who worked successfully with a mental health issue. 


There will always be cynics but, in time, the positive results of successful accommodations — in terms of increased productivity and a psychologically healthy and safe workplace — will ideally outweigh lingering, negative attitudes. 


Mary Ann Baynton is the program director of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in Toronto. For more information, visit www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com. 

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