Hard At Work: Why mental health in the workplace is often misunderstood and stigmatized

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In any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Since CBC Toronto first reported on proposed workplace rule changes in February, hundreds of workers have reached out by email, phone and in the comment section. Many of those messages were about their fear of coming forward to an employer and speaking up.

Stigma surrounds mental health at work

That fear is "very real," says Jeff Moat, president of Partners for Mental Health, who runs an initiative focusing on workplace mental health called Not Myself Today.

"There is a strong level of stigma that surrounds mental health and mental illness," he said. "That stigma is what creates cultures that aren't safe, where people don't feel safe to come forward to speak to their manager about a problem they may be dealing with. They're fearful of being shamed or being discriminated against."

It's a sentiment several City of Toronto employees echoed. They reached out to CBC Toronto after hearing the story of Victoria Muir — a city employee who says contract work and a lack of support led to her mental breakdown when she was employed as a community recreation programmer working in at-risk neighbourhoods and with refugees.

The employees, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity as they feared for their jobs, said they did not feel supported within the city system.

In response to these allegations, the City of Toronto said to CBC in an email that it "recognizes the importance of psychological health and safety in the workplace."

"The City recognizes that workplace factors can contribute to psychological health. While it is understood that a certain amount of stress is inherent in work, the City aspires to a work environment where continuous improvement in work practices and processes address psychological safety and support mental health."

'Systemic bullying' changes people's lives

Muir was hired by the city in 2003 and worked in contracts that didn't provide benefits or sick days until 2014, when she was offered a full-time position. She calls the way the city uses contract employees a form of "systemic bullying" that changes people's lives.

In response, the City of Toronto said it "will not tolerate, ignore, or condone discrimination or harassment" — adding that it has comprehensive policies and procedures to address complaints and a range of dispute resolution options for "employees who believe they may have experienced discrimination or harassment."

Muir, along with eight co-workers, filed a grievance in 2012 to move their type of contract into the full-time collective agreement — which would provide benefits and more support. The grievance has yet to be resolved.

The union that represents the workers says Muir is just one example and that they are seeing many similar cases.

"The city has been moving to a more precarious, less secure workplace ... and we're seeing in our office more calls on mental health issues … other issues associated with workload and the demands of their work, which is often about serving Toronto's most vulnerable," said Tim Maguire, president of CUPE Local 79, which represents approximately 20,000 City of Toronto employees.

The city told CBC Toronto it follows policies and collective agreement provisions when filling vacancies and works diligently to meet its obligations.

The city also said it is "committed to promoting mental health and psychological well-being and to actions that prevent harm to worker psychological health through appropriate policies, programs and services."

A 'new journey' for many workplaces

"Many organizations, private sector companies, governments have a lot of work to do in creating more mentally healthy work environments," said Moat. He adds that creating cultures of acceptance towards mental health is a "new journey" for workplaces.

Dr. Donna Ferguson, who is a clinical psychologist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), says education is key in helping employers understand what mental and psychological illnesses mean.

"It's not something they can see, but it's something you're going to need to see," she said, adding that it's simple for an employer to spot someone with a cast and a broken leg, but not so simple to see someone who is depressed and understand what that means.

For employees, Ferguson said it's important to recognize the signs early on. Those include:

- Not sleeping well.

- Not socializing as much.

- Feeling lethargic or down.

- Depressed mostly every day.

- Having frequent panic attacks.

If you're exhibiting any of those signs, and they're negatively impacting your functioning, Ferguson says it's important to see a doctor.

Mental health investment leads to less absenteeism, study suggests

For people like Muir who did not have benefits, it becomes a "vicious cycle" says Ferguson, as the worker may end up feeling more depressed and anxious.

"What employers need to think about in that regard, is that in the short-term perspective they're saving money, but there are a lot of long-term impacts," Ferguson said.

Moat echoes Ferguson's sentiment and cites an Australian study that found every dollar invested in a workplace mental health action resulted in 2.3 dollars in return. That return came in the form of reduced absenteeism, improved productivity and a lower number of compensation claims.

Email us if you want to share your workplace story.