top of page

2022 Strong – Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace to Build Better Teams

Updated: May 12, 2022

As with all Vital Partners sessions, in our most recent session on addressing mental health in the workplace, we wanted to provide organizations with concrete tools to be able to have conversations around mental health in the workplace.

Mental Health and Illness is still surrounded by stigma, which means that 90% people with mental health problems experience discrimination. Other statistics surrounding this issue are equally staggering:

  • 45% of people with severe mental health problems have been victims of crime. Fear, lack of compassion, and understanding are thought to be linked

  • Prior to the pandemic, 20% of people experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings

  • 26% of people under the age of 25 with mental health problems say that the stigma they face has made them want to give up on life.

  • The majority of people experiencing a mental health problem wait for over a year before telling their closest family and friends about it.

  • The incidence of depression in minority ethnic groups has been found to be 60% higher than in the white population.

A psychologically safe workplace is a place where we can show up as our real selves. It does not mean a nice place to work. It does not mean that any behaviour is excused or that performance standards are lowered. It is a place where we can be our real, professional, capable selves at work and don’t have to check our personalities at the door.

Mental Health and Mental Illness are not the same thing. Mental Health or “wellbeing” is all about how we cope with day-to-day life and how we feel. We all have mental health just like we all have physical health.

Mental Illness refers to a wide range of mental health problems or disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behaviour. Mental illness is diagnosed according to the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manulife of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It’s important to think about this distinction when we are thinking about supporting employees and fostering mental health, as well as our legal obligations to accommodate those diagnosed with a mental illness as part human rights legislation.

Accommodation is a two-way street: employers and employees have a joint responsibility to create a psychologically safe workplace:

  • Employers have a duty to inquire to see what kinds of supports would be required if an employee is diagnosed with a mental illness.

  • Employees must weigh in and let their employer know what they need if a situation arises.

Employers are never entitled to know what an employee is diagnosed with, but they are entitled to know that there is a diagnosis.

An employee would just have to produce a note from their doctor that indicates that there are restrictions or changes that would need to be made to that individual’s work, which would be detailed for further conversation with the employer.

Employers can be confronted with an employee who indicates they are stressed and that they need to go on stress leave. The employer may then ask the individual to talk to their medical professional. Stress can lead to a diagnosable mental illness, but it is not something that would typically necessitate a leave.

Guiding Principles for Respectful Language

Words matter. The way we talk about mental health can either limit an individual’s full potential or acknowledge that they are living with a struggle that may be particular to them, but it need not define them.

Language Changes: As the work around reducing stigma around mental health evolves, language changes. While it can be difficult to stay up to date on the current language, trying is an excellent first step. Asking the person you are talking to about a mental health concern with openness and curiosity is the first step.

Person First: Someone living with a mental illness is not defined by a mental illness. Describe what the person has instead of what they are. For example, instead of saying “the mentally ill,” you could say “people with a mental illness.” Instead of saying “They are an addict,”, say “They are a Person suffering with addiction.”

How to “Let’s Talk”

How do you recognize when you need help? We may think our feelings aren’t important enough to address. But remember that if it’s important to you, it’s important. There is no threshold to meet before you can reach out to someone you trust or a medical professional.

Stress, burnout, anxiety show up in our physical selves. Stomach-aches, headaches, trouble sleeping can be signs. If you find yourself worrying more than usual, finding it hard to enjoy life, or having thoughts and feelings that make it difficult to enjoy life, it may be time to seek help.

Here are some ideas to help get the conversation started. Sometimes having some prompts can help.

  • Reference a news story or public figure talking about mental health: “I was inspired by <public figure> sharing their mental health struggles, and I now have the courage to talk about mine.”

  • Bring a note from your doctor, mental health professional, or other specialist: “I’ve been to see my doctor and she’s recommended that I take a leave to care for my mental health.”

  • Acknowledge that it is uncomfortable to talk about: “This is awkward…maybe for both of us. But there are things on my mind that I would like to discuss with you.”

  • State the changes or outcomes you’d like to see as a result of the conversation: “Things at home are not awesome, and I know it’s been affecting my work. Can we talk about the role priorities and how I can better manage in the interim?”

How do you make the space to receive these conversations? On the listening end of these conversations, here are some quick tips to receive the message, respond, and be curious:

  • If you see someone who is struggling, show empathy, open mindedness, and hold judgement. Put aside your own pre-conceived notions.

  • Respond by taking the matter seriously. Don’t try to fix it or ask the specifics of a person’s diagnosis. Create the space where someone feels psychologically safe to approach (ie: with an actual open door to your office)

As a Leader

If you are told that an employee has limitations or needs supports relating to a mental illness, it is important to share that information with Human Resources leaders in your organization.

Often, employees tell their managers that a diagnosis is at play, but the manager does not feel at liberty to share those personal details.

Supporting mental health at work need not be a full-time job. Having the confidence to know that you're doing the right thing by being curious, empathetic, and approachable is half the battle.

Want to learn more? Lindsay is offering a Mental Health Skills Training Workshop to help people leaders

Lindsay Recknell, President and CEO of Mental Health in Minutes

As a Certified Psychological Health and Safety Advisor, Lindsay works with organizations to increase their levels of psychological health and safety using Positive Psychology -- evidence-based practical tips and techniques to increase wellbeing. Lindsay empowers individuals strengthens teams and transforms organizations with her podcast, Mental Health in Minutes and digital subscription service, as well as her Burnout & Boundaries workshop series.

Jill Wilkie, BA, LLB, Partner, Miller Thomson

Jill specializes in advising employers on all aspects of labour and employment law including employee misconduct, workplace investigations and terminations. Jill advises clients on a range of human resources matters including employment contracts, workplace policies, grievances, and arbitration, employee discipline, and terminations. Her bio and contact information can be found here.


bottom of page