Destigmatizing Mental Health in the Workplace 

Destigmatizing Mental Health in the Workplace 

By Angela Altass

Mental health and emotional well-being have arisen in workplace discussions more and more since the start of the pandemic with everyone under increased levels of stress while facing uncertainty and new challenges. 

“I think all of us have heard about mental health during the past year or so,” Marie-Josee Nucci, a consultant for the human resources firm Go RH, said at a session on Creating Safe Space and a Culture of Wellness during the recent Retail Council of Canada virtual RCC Store conference. 

Employees in the retail industry experience more mental health issues than the average (54 per cent versus 44 per cent) of the broader workforce, said Nucci, and they are less likely to receive mental health information from employers and less likely to feel comfortable asking for support.

“I’ve been in retail for many years and I know this isn’t the typical topic to discuss but I think being in a pandemic, it is now essential that we talk about it,” she said.

Mental health claims are the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada, stated Nucci.

“They account for an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of the disability claims recorded by Canada’s major insurers and employers,” said Nucci. “Three quarters of employers say mental health issues are the leading cause of short and long-term disability claims in their organizations. On average, mental health issues cost businesses almost $1,500 per employee per year.”

Nucci commented that she always felt that, before the pandemic, wellness wasn’t talked about enough in business.

“I was sort of sad that it took a pandemic for this topic to be moved up in priority but I am also more than happy that we are finally talking about it,” said Nucci. “If there’s one good thing that came out of this pandemic is that we are now talking about wellness in the workplace and we are talking about our people and the fact that they are essential and are at the centre of what we do and how we do things every day.”

Mental health and psychological safety in the workplace go hand in hand, said Nucci.

“Organizations that champion employee well-being experience less absenteeism, less employee burnout and fewer workplace injuries,” said Nucci. “Employees are more motivated and productive, with higher retention rates.”

Stress can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout which can turn into long-term disability, said Nucci, noting that mental health issues can affect anyone in any position of an organization.

“Sometimes, as managers we might have some ideas about what employees need but until we ask them, we don’t really know what issues they are facing,” she stated. “There is also an expectation that senior leaders will get the job done no matter what, but they have a limit as well. The stress of the pandemic is still there. We are still living day by day in the unknown and not knowing what to expect can trigger stress. Only 23 per cent of Canadian workers say that they would feel comfortable discussing their psychological health issues with their employer. That, to me, is shocking. We need to take action and change this so that employees can feel comfortable talking about it.”

When an employee leaves an organization because of mental health, it has an impact on the entire team, stated Nucci. 

“We need to talk about the financial cost and savings of this but really I hope that the pandemic has moved things a bit and people now realize that yes there is a return on investment in creating a safe space and a culture of wellness and that is important but it’s also about our employees and not just about the dollar,” said Nucci. “We need to take care of ourselves, our team and our colleagues. It takes courage to show vulnerability and we cannot blame our employees or colleagues if they are not talking about it if they are afraid of the consequences or of being judged.”

When we see signs that we are not doing well, such as difficulty sleeping, reduced energy or emotional changes, we should reach out and talk to someone about it, advised Nucci. 

“Identify what causes the stress and look at what you have control over,” said Nucci. “In addition to stress, our personality and life experience can have an impact. A lot of times, we try to hide the signs because we are afraid of the situation. If an employee doesn’t want to ask for help or talk to someone, there is a limit to what we can do because ultimately, the responsibility belongs to them.”

A healthy workplace is one in which employers and employees feel respected and safe, are productive, and have the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, said Nucci. 

“Psychological safety is the idea that we can feel safe bringing our whole selves to work and that we can take risks, make mistakes and be vulnerable without the fear of being judged, shamed, humiliated or punished,” said Nucci. 

The pandemic has put retail businesses through the ringer, noted Nabeela Ixtabalan, chief people and corporate affairs officer, Walmart Canada, during a RCC Store session on The Future of Work.

“In 2020, 30 per cent of Canadians reported struggling with anxiety disorders,” said Ixtabalan. “Fifty per cent of millennials and 75 per cent of Gen Z have quit a job for mental health reasons. Forty-seven per cent of Canadians are reporting that work is the most stressful part of their day. This is a challenge for all organizations, communities and our families. We need to raise awareness and educate individuals so they can recognize the signs of burnout and anxiety so they can ask for help. We need to destigmatize the conversation around mental health at work, at home and in our schools. We need to take responsibility as organizations to help to create the resources needed for people to thrive. We need to listen and act with compassion.”

Every organization of every size has the opportunity to redefine what a better normal can be with well-being at the centre, said Ixtabalan. 

“Gratitude and anxiety cannot co-exist,” Chester Elton, author of Anxiety at Work, said at the same RCC Store session. “The best leaders, the ones I would work the hardest for, are the leaders that make me feel great and are grateful for my efforts. Now, more than ever, as we welcome the next generation into the workforce, we have to realize that, in our generation, we never talked about mental health because we would be stigmatized as weak and shunned, and yet for this generation it’s all they talk about amongst themselves.”

Ninety per cent of employees will not talk to their supervisors and managers about mental health because they do not feel that it is safe, said Elton.

“That’s an issue of trust and a stigma that has to be removed,” he said. “We have to normalize conversations around mental health. From a business standpoint, if you want to attract the brilliant young minds that are coming into the workforce, you have to address this because, if you don’t, they will quit. The compassionate leaders who understand gratitude and engage their people on all levels, not just psychological safety but emotional safety, will be the big winners because that’s where the bright minds will go.”

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