Benefits professionals are often required to focus on financial concerns such as budgets, expenses and return on investment. But mental health is all about the human side of the equation.

At the April 27 closing keynote session of this year’s Benefits & Pension Summit, Lt.-Col. Stéphane Grenier described the peer support and mental health education program that he implemented in the Canadian military as well as his own personal struggle with mental illness.

Coping with mental ill health
After returning from a tour of duty in Rwanda, Grenier suffered from feelings of depression and anxiety that were largely ignored—both by those he worked with and by himself. “I was a mess,” he said frankly, adding that he and the soldiers he served with “didn’t even know we had a problem.”

While there has always been a stigma around mental illness, it can be particularly damaging in a military environment, where soldiers are encouraged to be “tough,” Grenier explained. “I wasn’t allowed to be human in Rwanda.”

And that stigma makes it very difficult for those afflicted to get the help they need. Only 35% of people with mental health issues seek treatment, noted Grenier. Furthermore, a 2010 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion per year in lost productivity.

Breaking the silence
One major challenge in addressing mental illness in the workplace is that people just don’t know how to deal with it, Grenier explained. “All I wanted was a bit of support. But I couldn’t get that support because no one knew how to support me.”

In Grenier’s case, it took a colleague (who was also coping with mental health issues) to notice that he wasn’t doing well and approach him. That touch point, along with other interventions, led Grenier to develop and launch a peer support program within the Canadian military.

Does your workplace have a peer support program to help address mental health issues? Take our poll on this issue.

    The program, which consists of 48 employees paid to provide peer support as well as related policies and training, was rolled out to military personnel and veterans in 2002, to their families in 2004 and to the bereaved in 2006. It was so successful that Grenier was then asked to initiate a mental health education program, which was launched to the military and their families in 2005.

    So what does it take to give mental health issues the attention they deserve in your organization?

    For one, it takes a real commitment from senior management. Grenier stressed the importance of embedding mental health education in leadership training, adding, “the lunch and learn methodology is sending the wrong message.” It also means “de-medicalizing” mental health—focusing on the human as well as the clinical aspects—and tailoring communications to the specific dynamics of your workforce.

    It’s Grenier’s hope that mental health will eventually become so integrated into workplace culture that we’ll no longer have a need for such programs. But until that day arrives, providing support for employees who suffer from mental illness is essential. It may even save a life. “If it had not been for that support, I’m not sure I would be standing here today.”

    Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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    See all comments Recent Comments

    Denyse Lefebvre-Lynch:

    Thank you and appreciation to Lt.-Col. Stéphane Grenier for speaking out on mental health, an intrinsic characteristic to our “human-ness”. Stereotyped-thinking regarding that those in the military must be “always” emotionally/mentally strong often leads us to ignore or dismiss this ever-present dimension.
    Notably, the workplace too is a battleground as employees struggle to be productive in ever-changing and unpredictable market place circumstances. Now impacted by daily global events, family responsibilities of raising children and many caring for aging parents, employees’ mental health must be attended to as vigorously as their physical well-being. Leaders/management who choose to ignore this “human dimension” risk their organizations’ productivity and sustainablity.

    Saturday, April 30 at 9:29 am | Reply

    Scott Warner:

    The Lt-Col paid the ultimate price in the service of our nation and I don’t mean loss of life. My nephew, who is in the armed forces recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. As a family we are on guard for signs of post traumatic stress and as a family you do what you can to help some sense of normal return to his life. Yet the truth is he will never be “normal” again. At a recent gathering I learned that no less than five of the men and women he served with have upon return committed suicide. They trained so heavily for the reality that one or more of them might die in the processing of their mission. This seems like the most bitter of ironies and it caused me to reflect on mental health in the workplace. Could you imagine after an intense sales campaign or mission critical project – numerous of your co-workers committed suicide from the stress? If that comment seems like hyperbole to you … I think your missing the point.

    Monday, May 02 at 7:48 am | Reply

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