Sunday 26 January 2014

"Let's Talk at Work"

Winston Churchill #quotes

What do legendary politician Winston Churchill, Olympian Clara Hughes, and me (sixth grade Summit Elementary Citizenship Award winner) have in common? We all chose to tell a story, our own personal story. That story? Of depression.

In my last post I spoke about how difficult it can be to open up and speak about illnesses that remain, for the most part, shrouded in stigma and misunderstanding. It's uncomfortable to talk about mental illness, both for the majority of people who have one and certainly for those who don't.

For the most part people have been kind and empathetic towards me. They have wanted to understand what my journey is and they have wanted to provide comfort. But they often felt so uncomfortable with the idea of saying the wrong thing and upsetting me, that they didn't say or do anything at all. I understand that - absolutely. But we will never truly conquer stigma if we don't make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable. And when I say 'we', I mean people on both sides of the story. We need to be more willing to listen and to share.

I am going to approach the 'Let's Talk' idea from a workplace perspective. It's a natural one for me since my chosen career is in the field of human resources. Oh, and workplace mental health issues typically account for 30% of disability claims and are rising. Kind of a big deal.

I was recently invited to chat informally with a small group of managers in my organization. I wasn't there as the 'Official Human Resources Expert On All Things Mental Health Related'. I was there simply as a person sharing a human experience. There weren't many questions and I think that's because the discomfort is still fairly high - we don't always know where or how to start. But there was one excellent, stand out question: "How do we have these conversations with an employee who we think is ill?"

Don't wait. Don't wait until you think that person is ill. OK, don't panic! I am not asking managers to hone their psychic abilities and predict who will become ill and when. But if you want to support that person, there are a few things to do first.

Build Trust
This is a big one that is not always easy for managers; however, without it you will never be able to really talk about this subject in an effective way. An employee will never share their diagnosis or struggles with you if they don't feel that they will be respected. I am going to let Forbes explain how to build trust effectively with five really great tips.

Talk About Mental Health
Did you notice that I said talk about mental health? Start in the shallow end of the pool. Speak with your employees about wellness and mental health before diving into the deep end of mental illness. Normalize the topic and make it something that you and your team feel comfortable speaking about on a regular basis. Here are some ways to do that:
* Add a standing agenda item on your team meetings where you talk about wellness.
* Start a wellness challenge amongst your team.
* Dedicate a bulletin board in the office to facts and tips about wellness and mental health.

Provide Resources
An organization's employee and family assistance program (EAFP) is often an underutilized resource. We often associate an EAFP with something that you use in a really difficult situation: illness; death of a loved one. But many are actually a lot more than that. Yes, there are some great resources to help you through the most challenging of times, but there are also resources to help you throug the everyday stuff: how to have difficult conversations in the workplace, how to manage your physical health, and how to support your mental health. Employers invest a lot of money into an EAFP - it's time we got more out of them. So promote, promote, promote - with one caution for managers. Don't do it in a way that the employee feels that you are just washing your hands of the 'problem'.

Admit What You Don't Know
If you have never experienced mental illness you likely don't know what it truly feels like. And that is OK. In fact, even though I have experienced anxiety attacks and three major depressive episodes in my 20 plus years of mental illness, I still don't presume to know exactly how someone else feels. So let's start there. Try saying something like this, "I see that you are going through something. I don't know what it is or exactly how you are feeling but I care about you and I want to support you." It's amazing what a bit of empathy, compassion and honesty can do in this world.

Yes, I am among some very esteemed company. The interesting thing about this club to which I belong is that it does not discriminate. Mental illness doesn't just choose white females who were born on a Sunday. Nope - it chooses Olympians, actors, writers, politicians, moms, kids, rich and poor. It includes 20% of Canadians. So let's stop avoiding this topic and let's start talking about it.

On Tuesday, January 28th please join me and many others as we take the conversation to a new level on Bell Let's Talk Day. For more information about this great initiative, please click here.

KB xo


  1. One thought to add to your great post. This doesn't only go for managers. As a colleague you can also do a lot to help people and trust and normalization go a long way towards this as well. Thanks for the great thoughts.

  2. Hi Danielle! I could not agree with you more. We all have a responsibility - that is for sure! KB


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