Mental Health on the Job

In this video, Amelia Kent shares her personal journey with mental illness, and graciously agreed to talk with me further about mental health on the job. An edited version of our conversation follows the video.

Amelia, thank you for sharing your personal journey with mental illness, and for your willingness to talk with me more specifically about some of the employment issues. By way of introduction, could you please tell me about your organization and the work you do?

I work for Communitas Supportive Care Society, which is a nonprofit organization that supports people with developmental disabilities as well as mental health issues, acquired brain injury, children with complex care needs, a whole variety of different scenarios. I’m no longer in peer support, but this year I’m doing reception which I absolutely love, and facilitating some of our training. I’m working with a team to develop a receptionist training program that would be for individuals with lived experience of mental health as well as developmental disabilities.We have a conflict management/crisis management and communication course that I facilitate, and we’re also rolling out respectful workplace training that I facilitate and train as well.

Given the focus of your organization, I would expect that awareness of mental health issues in the work place would also be quite high.

Absolutely, the conversation is already started, especially with my first position as a peer support worker. One of the job requirements is having a lived experience of mental health. So that’s already known. There is that awareness and acceptance right away.

But I had a lot of fear beforehand. I was so sick with my psychotic break, that I was out of the work force for close to 2 years. That was 10 years ago now–my resume had a two-year gap. How was I going to get a job? Saying that I had been working through a psychotic break didn’t seem like a great seller. So there was a lot of fear and confusion and shame around that before the opportunity with Communitas came up. I can understand why telling an employer about your mental health is a fearful thing for people.

What would you recommend for employees in that position?

One thing for people to be aware of is from a legal standpoint in Canada, one of the protected grounds for employees both provincially and federally, is that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of having a mental health disability. It is illegal to discriminate on that basis. Just knowing that maybe doesn’t make it easier, but knowledge is power–the more awareness, the more we have voices about it, the more we talk about it

Being bold and speaking about it is important within the context of what you’re comfortable with–because mental illness is like any other illness, and you need support to get through it. If we could move away from the shame piece, then that takes a whole burden off of somebody who’s already incredibly burdened and is desperately trying to get through the day. Sick time and other supports–that’s what they’re there for.

What kind of supports does your employer have in place?

We have an occupational health and safety staff person. She’s there just a couple days a week, takes care of ergonomic chairs and that sort of thing, and she has a focus on wellness where she’ll talk about the benefits of exercise, about nutrition and healthy eating. She set up a “spring into action” competition between departments that focused on exercise. All of that has a huge role in mental wellness, so she contributes that way.

There is an allowance for counselling for individuals who are struggling and need that extra support. So there’s some financial support.

There’s an employee benefit called Lifeworks, which is a website and resource that has a lot of wellness information that we can access–counselling, dietitians and other resources.

Informally the workplace atmosphere is one of inclusion. That’s one of our biggest mandates: belonging, acceptance, and support. So informally it’s a very warm and supportive place to be and to work. There’s trust in the relationships at work. There’s an openness to have discussion around mental health. There’s no judgement.That’s my work environment, which has a huge impact.

Communitas sounds like a great place to work, and with 500 employees, they’re able to do a lot. What would you recommend for churches and smaller organizations?

We’re a non-profit society, so it’s not like we have oodles of resources, but it’s a priority that our staff are well and taken care of within the context of the resources we have. For any organization, a good starting point is a willingness and just starting the conversation, how ever that would be doable in your organization. If there’s a staff memo that goes out, or a newsletter or a bulletin board, that could be a place for sharing a story, sharing some mental health tips, or did you know this about how common mental illness is. There are different creative ways of doing that. Obviously every employer will have different constraints with budget and such, but the more healthy your employees are mentally and the more that’s supported, the better productivity you’re going to have. If people are able to be at work because they are mentally healthy, that’s a win-win for everyone. Just starting to talk about things can make a difference.

We live with such high pressure–everyone is so busy and so stretched to the limit. So introducing resources is useful, like Lifeworks, like dealing with life work balance, or bringing in someone for mindfulness training for one session so people are aware and can pursue it on their own. Even the respectful workplace training that we’re doing is part of mental wellness. It’s all about bullying, harrassment, and your rights to have a psychologically safe workplace and what is the process if you feel like you’re not in a safe situation. That way people are given the responsibility, this is how you’re to show up and treat people. This is how you can expect to be treated. The respectful workplace training is specific to our organization, and every single staff member including our CEO takes this, but any kind of training like that could be helpful. Our connections and relationships to each other impact our wellness so much.

We’ve talked about a lot of things, Amelia–more than will fit in my article! But is there anything else you would like to add?

I always like to tell people not to give up. I was in a dark place for a very long time. Depression started in childhood for me and went right up to when I had my psychotic break. But it was after that, things got better, and I often say, I’m so thankful for it. It was a horrific experience, and one that we didn’t know if I would make it back from because of how incredibly ill I was. When you can’t trust your brain and your thoughts because what they’re telling you isn’t real, that’s a very scary place and a hard place to come back from. I didn’t know if I would ever work again let alone do anything meaningful. There was nowhere I could look at my life and say it was okay. Re-building has been a very long and difficult process, But people come out the other side. I see it all the time. There is life even after going through something that’s very difficult.

Your turn: What workplace supports for employee mental health
does your church or Christian organization
have in place? Of the things that Amelia mentions,
which one(s) would you most like to start?

_____________________

Next Up in two weeks, how one pastor survived burnout. If you’d like me to send that directly to your email inbox, please sign up for my free updates.

2 thoughts on “Mental Health on the Job

  1. I would start anything (in the US) that protects employment. Mental illness is not a protected category here under the Americans with Disabilities Act, although it counts as a “disability” for employers attempting to fulfill their federal disability hiring targets. So there’s been a couple times I’ve applied for a job and been asked in the initial paperwork whether I have one of the listed “disabilities”–more than 40 percent of which are just MH diagnoses. That becomes intimidating, not inviting.

    • I appreciate your comment, Carlene. I didn’t realize that mental illness was not a protected category in the US. The set up you describe would certainly make an intimidating situation even moreso.

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