During my last interview at a company, I specifically asked the prospective employer: “Could you explain what Mental Health means to you and how your company culture supports employee mental health?” The answer I received was about work life balance, and how that’s important.
I’m not going to argue work life balance isn’t important. However, to say that work life balance is all that there is to mental health is a bit of a stretch.
I have been fighting myself all my life, but it wasn’t until 2018 that I finally received a diagnosis. The diagnosis wasn’t scary. Instead, it helped me understand what I was going through all this time. Having that knowledge also helped me research more on the topic of mental health. If I could go back in time, here are all the things that I wish my employer knew about mental health:
Depression is not Sadness
Many people have this misconception that people suffering from depression are sad. No, they are not. They have low mood, but that isn’t sadness. Depression is a feeling of utter emptiness. When it hits, the world feels like nothing. Common* moods like happiness, gratitude, and sadness don’t exist when you’re depressed. And without those moods that drive our decisions and actions, it is crippling.
When depression hits, it feels like paralysis.
When depression hits, it feels like paralysis. It’s difficult to move, to think, to act. Under these conditions, it’s extremely difficult to get work done. Thankfully, for a large percentage of those who suffer from depression, these episodes generally pass with the support of loving family and friends. Depending on the severity of depressive episodes, it may also be possible for the sufferer to accomplish tasks that are very structured in nature. By structured, I mean tasks that have a known input and output, and don't require creative problem solving skills. In fact, systematic tasks may even be therapeutic.
*I don’t want to say “normal”, as my counsellor said: there is no “normal”, just “accepted”.
Misconception - “Stress is an easy way to fake a sick day”
To be incredibly honest, I can’t say that nobody has ever faked a sick day and called it “stress”. That doesn’t mean stress isn’t a genuine problem.
Stress is defined as “a state of emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances”. Many things and situations can contribute to someone’s overall stress level. Significant changes in someone’s family situation such as the loss of a loved one, divorce or separation, etc. are common catalysts.
You may be saying to yourself: “Well, my ____ just passed away and that’s an adverse circumstance, but I don’t feel very stressed.” How demanding a situation is varies from situation to situation. For example, if you had an amicable separation, it may be upsetting but it’s not ruining your life. However, if someone is going through a challenging divorce where everything is contested, that is a much higher level of tension.
When the emotional cup is full, there is no more space to hold the stress in; the cup overflows.
How well someone handles stress is also different from person to person. I call someone’s ability to handle stress their “emotional cup”. A person’s emotional cup generally remains near empty. As stressful things appear in the person’s life, stress gets added to that cup. Sometimes, stresses are nothing but a drop in the cup; the small stressors – like Tim Hortons running out of your favourite donut. Sometimes, stresses come in torrents – perhaps, the passing of a child. When we perform acts of self-care, or “de-stress”, we slowly reduce the stress levels in the cup. In theory, it reverts to near empty and we are ready to take on the world again.
When that emotional cup is full, however, because of high stress situations or ongoing stress and the person is not able to de-stress, there is no more space in the cup to hold the stress in. The cup then overflows. Until something happens to reduce the stress in the cup, any new stress will just continue to overflow. When stresses are not dealt with, and someone’s emotional cup is constantly running on full, it becomes long-term stress and can snowball into significant mental health illness.
Long-term stress causes physiological problems on top of mental health illnesses. Stressors were meant to trigger our primordial fight or flight response because back in the hunter gatherer days, a stressor generally meant we were going to be eaten by a lion. However, modern stressors don’t walk away like a stalking lion. Sustained, or chronic stress leads to elevated cortisol levels in our bodies. This in turn, causes all sorts of health problems, from high blood pressure to higher blood sugar levels.
So, be empathetic and allow your staff to have some time off so they can recover from their full emotional cup. They will thank you for your support in their time of need.
Anxiety can be a disorder and it is distracting
Stress, depression, and anxiety are all very closely related. Anxiety can cause stress, and prolonged stress can lead to depression. However, it’s extremely worthwhile to call out the effects of anxiety alone.
Anxiety is the feeling of butterflies when faced with the imminent or unknown. Like stepping on stage for the first time for a full-house performance. Anxiety occurs because the performer is worried about what could happen – Will I trip? Will I be off-key? Will the audience like my performance? What if I forget my lyrics? All these unknowns contribute to anxiety.
Everyone gets anxious once awhile, like in the case of the performer above. But when the feeling of anxiety is significant, it becomes an anxiety disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used to diagnose mental health illnesses includes a list of anxiety disorders, and a very common one in Canada is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which affects approximately 3% of the general population in a given year.
Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders experience intense worry and fear over things both large and small. They are constantly anticipating disasters, and catastrophizing. Mild episodes of anxiety disorders can be very benign, and almost a bonus in a work environment. People who are afraid things might go wrong may also be the person who triple checks their work and proofreads their email 10 times before sending. They still have a small panic after they submit their work or send their email, but as far as the employer is concerned, this staff was just extra careful, and produces great quality work.
However, when stressors pile up, those who suffer from anxiety disorders can quickly spiral out of control because their mind is constantly anticipating the next problem. In this mode, their mind cannot focus on the task at hand. Instead, their mind is constantly dragged back to the thing that’s bothering them. Because of this a relatively high percentage of individuals with severe GAD are likely to be unemployed.
That said, moderate GAD is episodic. Which means individuals who suffer from GAD may have long stretches of time when they’re not consumed by their worries. They are still anxious all the time, but it doesn’t prevent them from working, or generally be productive.
The best thing an employer can do is to help reduce the number of unknowns in the employee's life.
As an employer, what could you do? The first step is to recognize and understand what is happening. Do you have a staff member who is usually a high performer, but suddenly refuses to answer phones or emails, and they have not produced much work products lately? They may be suffering through an anxiety episode. In this mode, constant questions regarding their performance or whereabouts will only create more stress. The best thing an employer can do is to help reduce the number of unknowns in their life. Generally, this means some time off so they can focus on whatever is causing them anxiety. At the same time, be careful to not come across like their job is in jeopardy, because you know they are already panicking about that. Let your staff know that you understand that they need some time, reassure them that they can return to work with no questions asked. Don’t ask questions about when they think they may be able to return to work. Chances are, they don’t know. Instead, tell them you will check-in with them in a few days to see how they’re getting along, but reiterate it’s just a check-in and there is no pressure to return if they don’t feel like it.
Mental Health is not easy to talk about
Despite a lot of conversations being had about ending the stigma around mental health, it still carries a lot of negative connotations. Frankly, I don’t blame them. For many, mental health is a nebulous concept. An unseen illness that for many we do not know the cause or have a cure. It’s particularly problematic at work because mental health does hinder work performance and for that reason employers are hesitant to deal with it. Understandably, if you could hire someone who could perform 100% of the time, why would you hire someone who could only perform 80% of time?
Well, my answer is this – No one can perform 100% of the time. Mental health is just like physical health. An immune compromised individual may get sick more often, much like those who are emotionally compromised from trauma are more likely to suffer from mental health illnesses. At the end of the day, mental health issues exist. It’s better to understand the issue and be able to address it with compassion and finesse, rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away.
Some key steps to get started addressing the issue head-on:
If you do not already have one, consider an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where you can offer free counselling services for your employees with a licensed professional.
Encourage an open and stigma free environment by setting examples of mental health days, such as taking a day off yourself as needed.
Don’t ask for sick notes.
If an employee comes to you with a mental health concern, work with them to see if a workplace accommodation can benefit them such as allowing telecommute if they have social anxiety issues.
Overall, be empathetic. Your staff will remember you as a compassionate leader and they will attempt to pay you back in spades.
October is mental health awareness month in Canada. Find out more about mental health and access additional mental health resources on the Canadian Mental Health Association website.
Learn more about what you can do as an employer on our Mental Health Resources page.