Mary Ann Baynton worked in the insurance field from 1983 to 1996. She ran her own small insurance brokerage for eight of those years, until the experiences of an employee who suffered losses in a fire set Baynton on a course to devote her life to improving the state of workplace mental health.

“The employee came to me and said that she wasn’t sleeping and that she was having what she described as flashbacks coming to her during the day. She wasn’t coping well, generally,” says Baynton, who consulted with the Red Cross on how to help. The organization gave her information about critical incident stress, which she shared with the employee. “As soon as she understood that she was having a normal response to a bad situation, she started to get better.”

This incident opened Baynton’s eyes to workplace mental health issues. Shortly after, she sold her business and went back to school to obtain a master’s in social work. In the nine years since completing her degree, Baynton has worked tirelessly to develop resources to help employees and employers dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

From 2003 to 2007, Baynton was director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Works program, which offers training workshops and resources (available at varying costs) to help employers across Canada identify and assist employees with mental health issues and to help reduce the stigma around these issues in the workplace.

We used to work with our backs. Now we work with our brains.

While she says the team was able to do some great things, she found the funding challenges that plague many non-profit organizations limiting. Today, Baynton is program director of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, which provides free workplace mental health resources. She’s encouraged by the fact that a corporation such as Great-West would devote funding to creating free tools. Baynton says it’s part of a growing trend of businesses putting time and resources into mental health issues as they start to understand the impact that such investments can have on employee productivity.

“We used to work with our backs. Because of that, the most frequent injuries were musculoskeletal. Now we work with our brains. In most organizations I’ve been in touch with, the majority of disability claims are related to mental health and stress-related issues.”

But Baynton says there’s a lot of work left to do. First and foremost, awareness around mental health needs to be improved so that employees dealing with mental health challenges are viewed the same way as those dealing with other illnesses or disabilities. “We’re afraid of what we don’t know, and that’s where most stigma comes from. If we’re not sure how to react or what to expect, it makes us afraid.”

She also says that companies dealing with limited capital and resources need to be shown that the creation of mentally healthy workplaces doesn’t need to come from a series of additional programs to fund and manage. Rather, they can be built through subtle changes to existing work processes and HR policies, such as training managers to spot potential stress triggers before they become a problem.

She says these roadblocks to better workplace mental health will take time to overcome, but the positive results she sees from her work every day will keep her going to bring change. “We all have stressors and times when life becomes more difficult,” she says. “But when you see someone go from the depths of despair to enlightening and encouraging others, that’s inspiring to me.”

Neil Faba is associate editor of Benefits Canada.

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Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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