BC: What made you take an interest in the issue of mental health in the workplace? MW: I’ve had an interest in mental illness and addiction going back to my political days, when I was a member of Parliament, and I decided it was something I wanted to spend time on when I left politics. Subsequent to that, our son became ill and died as a result of mental illness. I started speaking out, and as I spoke out it became very clear to me that one of the real problem areas was the existence of mental illness and addiction in the workplace. Around that time, I met Bill Wilkerson, a founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, and he asked me if I would become involved. I was very happy to have the opportunity to work with Bill and Tim Price, the Roundtable’s co-founder, in helping to move this along.
BC: What challenges do corporations need to overcome to be more effective in this area? MW: One of the biggest challenges is awareness or, looking at the other side of the coin, denial. I remember talking to a very senior executive at a very large company and he said, “We don’t have a problem with addiction and mental illness.” I said, “If that’s the case, then you’re a statistical aberration.” I told him the numbers and he went to do some work on it. Two or three months later I was talking to him and he said, “You know you were right. Now we’re going to have that on the agenda of our health, safety and environment committee.” The important thing is making sure people at the board or senior management level accept the fact that this exists in their companies and it’s not a weakness of the company. It’s just a natural element of human life. So, accept the fact that it’s there and put in place the processes to identify it and deal with it. BC: What are the biggest hurdles facing frontline supervisors? MW: In some cases, people are very uncomfortable dealing with someone with a mental health problem. In other cases, the individual is reluctant to come forward. They may deal with their employee assistance program, but they might not be comfortable talking to their supervisor. [A major Canadian bank] put a series of articles in their staff magazine that highlighted the experience of three or four people, describing how they realized they had a mental health problem, how they got help, and how they got back to work. Improving the openness with which companies deal with these issues is incredibly important. The more people feel a comfort level in talking about these illnesses, the better we’ll all be. BC: What are the steps you’d like to see employers in Canada take? MW: First, recognize at the senior management and board level that there is a problem. Second, bring senior managers together to discuss it and get their support for the programs the health and safety people want to put in place. Third, make sure training and knowledge reaches the supervisory and team leader levels, so everybody is aware this might exist in their group and understands how to deal with it. Hopefully the result will convey a sense of openness, awareness and understanding so people who are working at the company—lower level employees, middle management employees and senior management—all feel they’re able to talk about mental illness and addiction if they personally have a problem.
Alison MacAlpine is a freelance writer in Toronto. firstname.lastname@example.org