‘I was fired after asking for help’

Employers have to back up their claims of supporting mental health, says an employee dismissed after she presented a doctor’s note at work
By Maria McLean
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/21/2017

On Jan. 12, I was fired from K93, a Bell Media-owned radio station — one hour after handing in a doctor’s note prescribing 10 days off work for mental health leave.

After I posted about it on social media on Bell’s “Let’s Talk Day,” people had a lot to say about it. “The nerve of Bell!” “How hypocritical!” and “That’s discrimination” were phrases I saw over and over on social media. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how things didn’t have to end the way they did. My employer panicked because my situation was sensitive. But there were many ways it could have been better dealt with, especially concerning a worker having mental health struggles.

The day of my firing, I was extremely transparent about what I was going through. My program director listened to what I had to say, but it was clear he didn’t know how to respond. And it was the same for the operations manager and HR. They were uncomfortable.

When my employer felt uncomfortable, it made me feel more uncomfortable. It was hard enough admitting I needed to take time off — their reaction made me feel as if I had taken one step forward and a dozen steps back.

Speaking from experience, people with mental health struggles often want someone to talk to, but this does not have to fall on an HR representative’s shoulders. Some people are more comfortable than others when talking about these sensitive issues.

What would have helped me is if my employer had resources available, such as therapists, psychologists or even lifestyle suggestions. Not only would this have helped me move further towards getting better, but it would have shown me I was being looked out for, that my employer takes mental health seriously.

If you are an employer that has these resources available already, be sure to mention them during the orientation of a new employee and in a staff-wide email once or twice a year. You aren’t only reminding employees you are willing to help, you’re showing them you’re ready to support them.

Raising $6 million for awareness says a lot, but the big test is to put your money where your mouth is. If you have readily available resources, it tells an employee he is not alone and his support team (which he needs) is expanding.

Each person is different and has different struggles. If an employee comes to you about her mental health struggles, have trust if you can’t have empathy. Of course, as always, remember the rules for confidentiality and privacy.

A second strategy my employer could have used may sound quite simple, but sometimes the simplest things are the ones we overlook the most. Leading up to my termination, I wish my supervisor had asked me more about how I felt about work. When I look back now, I know being able to open up with my employer earlier in my struggles would have decreased the stress I was experiencing.

Half of workers diagnosed with a mental health illness haven’t told their employer, according to Health Canada. Of course, stigma is an influence of this, but fear is also a contributing factor. My story was meant to end the stigma of mental health, but it could have also induced fear for others who are looking to open up and are afraid they’re risking their employment.

Employees should know that being honest with their struggles will lead to support, not discrimination, and mental health will be treated the same as physical health.

I thought my HR department would be there for me. They were not. They did not have answers, they did not have a support system and they did not know what to do in my situation. I wanted answers that I was owed so badly, I opened my personal health file and showcased it in front of the country.  My HR department did not know how to handle the situation, so they cut me out completely.

I may not ever get an apology but I do hope my situation can be a lesson. Mental health is not something to be swept under the rug. Education, understanding and support need to be committed to in the workplace for everyone’s benefit.

In light of my situation, now’s the perfect time for employers to remind employees of the resources you have available and the support system your corporation is committed to. I know there are workers out there who, like me, are putting on a brave face everyday but are having terrible internal struggles. No one should have to hide an illness that’s out of their control for fear of losing their job.

Familiarize yourself with workplace stressors, and the effects they are having on employees. More than likely, if it is a stressor, the employee won’t be the one to start the conversation for fear of showing weakness. Ask how the job position is going, how the employee is feeling, and start an open, honest conversation.

If an employee submits a medical note, know that it took courage for that person to admit he needed help. Respect that courage and get on board to support the individual. It will mean the world to her.

There is a mental health fight going on, but it isn’t against the illness — it’s against the stigma. Do what you can to defeat it, and you’ll be helping Canada take the much-needed steps towards a better and healthier workforce.

Maria McLean is a public relations student and mental health advocate from New Glasgow, N.S., currently residing in Grand Falls, N.B.

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