Mental Health at Work: Your Questions Answered

Mental Health at Work

When you miss work because of surgery, you get flowers and casseroles.  When you are depressed and can’t come to work, you are seen as lazy and weak and no one knows how to respond.


By David Grauwiler

In my role as Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Alberta I am approached from time to time to answer questions posed by a reporter.  The questions posed can tell us a lot about stigma and the slow progress we are making in addressing mental health in the work place.  The answers are my own.

1. In your opinion, has the stigma of mental illness remained the same or decreased from its perception five years ago and if so, what has changed?

We are encouraged by the progress made in Canada related to reducing the crippling stigma associated with mental illness in the past.  It would appear that a conversation is starting to emerge which focuses on the pervasiveness of mental illness in the general population and the potential for recovery. This conversation is characterized by openness, celebrity champions and the action of businesses and NGO’s to “talk” about mental health.  We applaud this, and, of course, we also know that words in themselves are not sufficient.  The conversation must move to action.

That being said, we do still have a long way to go.  I have heard it described this way, “When you are sick and away from work because of a surgery, you get flowers and casseroles.  When you are depressed and can’t come to work you are seen as lazy and weak and no one knows how to respond.”  More than 4000 Canadians die by suicide each year and more than 500,000 Canadians miss work in any given week because of a mental health challenge.

Workplaces are especially important when it comes to mental health in the general population.  The Mental Health Commission of Canada has recognized this and in 2013 introduced the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The standard is first of its kind in the world and has already garnered much attention and uptake from coast to coast, internationally, and across all sectors and sizes, as leaders champion the need to focus on psychological health and safety in the workplace. – See more at:

2. With so many school shootings and workplace rage incidents in the news, is it important for co-workers and employers to recognize the signs of mental illness? Why or why not?

I am not sure I would link school shootings and workplace rage incidents to workplace mental health.  The vast majority of individuals dealing with mental illness in their workplaces will not end up shooting co-workers or going into a rampage.  Tying extreme and relatively rare incidents to workplace mental health can actually reinforce stigma and negative stereotypes.  What we need to remember is that for many people their mental health challenge can lead to isolation, fear of disclosure and in some cases unemployment, simply because we are not making the same strides related to stigma in the workplace as we are in general.

3. What are – if any – are these signs?

We need to keep in mind that all people have “mental health” and that some will experience “mental illness” including addiction.  People in their workplace generally present in a relatively conventional way.  They show up for work on time (or close to on time), they are not absent too many days, they get the job done and maintain relatively healthy relationships with their co-workers.

Signs that things may not be going well for an employee could include emotional changes and a loss of motivation.  Depression, anxiety, irritability, suspiciousness and difficulty with concentration or attention may indicate an interior change that is starting to show up in the staff room.  Other signs may include sleep disturbance, social isolation or withdrawal as well as a reduced ability to carry out work or social roles.

4. How can employees remain productive while battling mental illness?

Mental illness takes many forms.  It has been described as a continuum based on severity.  For some mental illness may be a brief bout of depression, or anxiety.  For others, severe and persistent mental illness can result in long periods of time in the hospital or away from work.  Productivity may not be the best goal for employees with mental illness.  Recovery is a better goal.  The evidence suggests that the severity and persistence of mental illness can be significantly reduced by early and effective interventions including mental health support, counselling, medication, alternate therapies etc.

5. How can employers help employees remain productive and have access to treatment while the employee battles mental illness?

Enlightened employers will work with an employee who has been impacted by mental illness to accommodate and support recovery and return to work.  We also should remember that mental illness impacts families as well.  Sometimes an employee needs time off to support a family member experiencing a setback.  Again productivity may not be the best place to focus when an employee is grappling with depression or schizophrenia.  A supportive and well informed HR department, supervisor  etc. will go a long way in helping someone find their way back to work.  While employees experiencing mental illness are in a battle that battle is far more likely to be against stigma, judgement and their right to work.

6. What should an employee do if they have a severe breakdown (panic attack, rage, etc) at work?

Employees and employers may experience mental health challenges in their workplace.  We can do a lot to help with that reality by helping our company, team etc. learn more about mental illness and addiction as part of professional development and work/culture.  Employees who experience mental health challenges need to know who they can go to for help.  They need to know that the helper will not judge them and will have the skills to support the employees efforts to get help and recover.

7. What should co-workers do if an employee has a severe breakdown at work?

Treat the person with respect, the way you would want to be treated if you were sick at work. We should try to empathize with how the person feels without stating any judgments.  It is important for you to be honest when interacting with the person. Do not make any promises you cannot keep.

Again, employees should know who to call in the case of a mental health emergency.  We seem to be able to build a culture of work place safety and first aid.  Responding the a mental health crisis at work should be an extension of workplace health and safety.

8. Anything to add?

There are a number of programs which employers should be aware of.  They can learn more by contacting their local CMHA regional office anywhere in Canada (

They are:

National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (Standard):

Championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), and developed by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA Group) and the Bureau de normalization du Québec, the Standard is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources focused on promoting employees’ psychological health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors. (

Mental Health First Aid:

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Just as physical first aid is administered to an injured person before medical treatment can be obtained, MHFA is given until appropriate treatment is found or until the crisis is resolved. (

Safe Talk:This 3 hour workshop alerts one to warning signs indicating risk of suicide.  The workshop emphasizes the importance of recognizing the signs, communicating with the person at risk and getting help or resources for the person at risk. (

ASIST:Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a two-day intensive, interactive and practice-dominated course designed to help caregivers recognize and review risk, and intervene to prevent the immediate risk of suicide. It is by far the most widely used, acclaimed and researched suicide intervention training workshop in the world. (

The Good Men Project is having the conversation that no one else is having about mental health. Join us and find your place.Stereotypes-for-lunch-power lunch

Article originally published on as Answering Questions About Workplace Mental Health on Linkedin Pulse; reprinted with permission.

Photo by Dylan.

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