Mental health a year-round conversation at Aird & Berlis (National HR Awards)

Winner: Medavie Blue Cross Best Mental Health Initiative
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/28/2018
Attorney General
Michael Bryant, former attorney general of Ontario, was a guest speaker at Aird & Berlis, discussing the topic of mental health. Courtesy: Aird & Berlis

After a guest lecture for management about mental health, an idea was born to fully address the issue in the workplace at Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis.

“We were inspired to have a conversation about something that doesn’t get talked about a lot in the legal profession, and probably most professionals more generally, which is mental health and the universality of struggling at different times in your life or whether you’re having mental health struggles directly or you’re caring for loved ones and friends that are struggling with mental health,” says Corrine Kennedy, partner at Aird & Berlis.

After the talk, some members of management opened up about the topic, according to Kennedy.

“Our managing partner was the first one to say, ‘We need to do something about this; this conversation the four of us are having is incredibly cathartic — how do we make that cathartic for the entire firm, how do we move that conversation forward?’”

This was two years ago and Kennedy was given the task (and tabbed as the firm’s diversity and inclusion partner) to set up a series of programs and initiatives for the 400 employees at the firm.

“I went back and I did the research, and I came up with a plan. And that plan had a bunch of different prongs (and) one of (them) was focused on having that conversation all year-round, but sort of kicking it off through a mental health week,” says Kennedy.

“We’ve had our second mental health week and we will do a smaller one in the fall as well, just as a sort of a refresher and to keep that conversation going.”

In addition to regular events, the company offered specific training for its managers, and a Workplace Mental Health Leadership Certificate program was provided to senior leadership.  The program helped leaders “set the tone for how to talk about mental health, how to accommodate people’s needs not only as required by law but as needed to help people get through those times when they need more support, and how to direct the managers and to ensure that that happens,” says Kennedy.

The firm also opened that up to people who have no direct reports but either have an interest in mental health or are working with their kids or their family members who want to be able to talk to people who are in crisis or who need help, she says.

Aird & Berlis also brought in guest speakers to discuss the issue of mental health, such as TSN radio host Michael Landsberg and former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant.

Feedback after the talks has been positive.

“What I heard from people was ‘I’m so glad we’re finally having this conversation. And I had no idea where to access the employee assistance program. Now I know,’ because there’s intense messaging that goes around every day of the week with mental health tips and with what’s happening and why we’re doing it,” says Kennedy.

Aird & Berlis also has a formal feedback survey to gauge success. “I’m the first one to admit that we have not been great at that part yet,” says Kennedy of some early struggles with the survey format.

“We had the option of putting everything on hold until we had the processes down perfectly and then launching it (but) no one was willing to do that because we felt there was more benefit to getting it started immediately and having some impact as soon as we could, rather than getting that done perfectly.”

“There’s always room to improve and to grow and to change and to evolve in this process,” she says.

The firm puts on many different events just to help people feel better about the workday.

“We did eco-therapy, we’ve done movies in our client centre — we turned it into a movie theatre thing with popcorn. We’ve done duelling pianos, we’ve done the keynote speakers, we’ve done chanting yoga, we’ve done meditation and mindfulness.”

As well, Aird & Berlis handed out plants to help spark the mental health conversation.

“We use it as an opportunity to show people where resources are, to have a conversation, to share mental health tips, to talk about self-care, to do all of those things. So those activities are fun and engaging or they’re challenging and uncomfortable in terms of the keynote speaker sometimes. But, in some ways, they get that conversation going,” says Kennedy.

The ultimate aim is to fully transform the workplace, she says.

“The bigger goal is to get toward the national standard on a psychologically healthy workplace. That’s what we’re trying to get to, that place where every decision we make as a firm gets looked at from a mental health lens.”

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