Feds strive to become leader in workplace mental health

Former Finance Minister Michael Wilson named special advisor on mental health
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/03/2005

In a bid to make the federal government a paragon of workplace mental health, Ottawa has appointed former Finance Minister Michael Wilson special advisor on mental health in the federal government workplace.

“(The federal government is) the largest employer in the country, and we need to be sure that we are the leader in mental health workplace issues,” Minister of Health Ujjal Dosanjh told

Canadian HR Reporter

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While the mental health picture in the federal public service is not completely clear, Dosanjh knows there is room for improvement. “I have been told that we could do a better job in our workplace,” he said.

It is too soon to give specific details or lay out detailed objectives, but Wilson will work with others to “push” the government to make the federal workplace the best in the country in terms of addressing mental health issues, said Dosanjh.

Specific goals will emerge in the months ahead, but broadly speaking, Wilson will be working to examine research and best practices, and raise awareness across the public service. Work has to be done to destigmatize mental illness, said Dosanjh.

Aside from appointing Wilson, Dosanjh will also be creating a new interdepartmental task force which will create an inventory of federal-sector best practices. And he will soon be asking other ministers to identify a senior official in each department to co-ordinate mental health efforts.

“I felt that mental health issues weren’t getting the kind of profile they require. They weren’t getting the kind of dialogue they require,” said Dosanjh.

“I want to make sure there is some visible leadership across the country with someone pushing us to do the right thing.”

Mental illness is growing into a massive problem that can’t be ignored much longer, said Bill Wilkerson, who will be working Wilson to tackle the issue in the public service and has worked closely with him to promote better workplace mental health practices through the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.

Research has shown that almost one-half of all work days lost due to illness are related to mental illness, he said. And there is some evidence to suggest the situation in the federal public service is worse.

“We know that their running rate of depression is higher than the national average. And I suspect that the federal public service work environment — perpetual change, budget reductions and working in a fishbowl — has taken its toll on morale and the resilience of its workers,” said Wilkerson.

There also continues to be a negative image of the public service itself and by extension the people who work there, he said. One solution might be to give workers more training in dealing with the criticism they sometimes face. “Coach them so they don’t have to defend every slight, but to roll with the punches, teach them the skills of resilience,” he said.

With the work done and research gathered through the roundtable, he and Wilson can tackle the problem with a running start, said Wilkerson. There probably won’t be a need to “go back to first principles” to study the problem, he said. “We feel we have a good grasp on the very deeply rooted conundrum.” Last year the roundtable released a “road map” for effective mental disability management. Wilkerson said they hope to use the road map to address the problems in the federal public service. (For more on the road map see sidebar.)

Though workload is a problem, simply hiring more people or reducing the load isn’t a realistic option, he said. Other changes can be made to make the workload more tolerable. “Timelines can be more reasonable and deadlines less arbitrary. Give someone 10 days instead of a week,” he said. “You gotta give people a sense of hope that each deadline won’t morph into the next without recognition of having accomplished something.”

Workplace wellness researcher and consultant Graham Lowe also said the situation in the federal public service is pretty clear since a large survey of federal public service was just completed in 2002.

It identified a number problems — poor communication, lack of support from supervisors, lack of trust in management — that are driving factors in elevated mental illness, he said.

Action plans were supposed to be developed in response, but two years later, what has been done, asks Lowe. “It is essential that the minister and Michael Wilson try to build on what is already been done.” Improvements can come from low cost, high impact changes like improving communication and giving supervisors some basic people skills, he said.

“We know that there are some superb workplaces in the federal government,” said Lowe. “The challenge is to find those pockets of excellence, figure out how they got to be that good and try to replicate it right across the system.”

Penelope Marrett, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said that the appointment of Wilson is a good one.

“If the federal government takes this leadership role, it would not just be as an employer, but it sends a message that it sees this as a big issue and an important issue and an issue that needs to be dealt with,” she said.

The government needs to be looking at new policies that will do something to address the problem on mental health in all workplaces, she said, “But before they can do that, they better make sure their own house is in order.”


Causes and aggravators of mental illness

The Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health has identified 10 management practices and behaviours most likely to cause or aggravate mental health problems in the workforce.

1. Imposing unreasonable demands on subordinates and withholding information materially important to them in carrying out their jobs.

2. Refusing to give employees reasonable discretion over the day-to-day means and methods of their work.

3. Failing to credit or acknowledge their contributions and achievements.

4. Creating a treadmill at work — too much to do all at once all the time.

5. Creating perpetuated doubt, employees never sure what’s happening around them.

6. Allowing mistrust to take root. Vicious office politics disrupt positive behaviour.

7. Tolerating, even fostering, unclear company direction and policies, job ambiguity and unclear expectations.

8. Sub-par performance management practices — specifically employee performance reviews, even good ones — that fail to establish the employee’s role in the company’s near or mid-term future.

9. Lack of two-way communication up and down the organization.

10. Managers rejecting, out of hand, an employee’s concerns about workload.

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