Ella’s alarm goes off shrilly at 3 a.m. It’s the first of many alarms she sets for herself every few hours in the night. Most people long to fall into a deep slumber and wake up peacefully seven or eight hours later. But for her, deep sleep triggers nightmares of childhood trauma and it’s emotionally easier to deal with sleep deprivation than reliving the same horror over and over again. 

Of course, this kind of “solution” isn’t feasible long-term. After a few weeks, Ella’s lack of sleep takes its toll and begins to infiltrate every aspect of her life. She begins snapping at her family members and co-workers. Her concentration is low and even the simplest of tasks at work take longer. She is missing deadlines and coming in late for the first time in her professional career, as well as increasing the number of days she is absent. When her supervisor confronts her about her behaviour, after a co-worker’s complaint, she responds aggressively and bursts into tears. She is shocked to learn she is causing her team members distress and truly isn’t cognizant of her poor behaviour. 

Is Ella a “difficult” employee? To her co-workers, it probably appears as such. But often, the reason is more deep-rooted than just an employee with a “bad attitude.” Ella may simply be struggling with her mental health and needs some strategies implemented in the workplace to help her cope. 

There is someone similar to Ella in every workplace — even yours. You may not realize it yet, but they are there.

In Part 1 of a Two-Part series on mental wellness, we focus on mental health in the workplace. We explore how mental health problems show themselves and where to find guidelines for dealing with them at work.  Our timing couldn’t be more appropriate. January 29th marks the 10-year anniversary of the Bell Let’s Talk program, specifically designed to break the silence around mental illness and support mental health programs and initiatives across the country. As January 29th approaches, let’s reflect on and act upon ways we can create workplace conditions that are inclusive, compassionate, and responsive. 


Why is Mental Health in the Workplace Important?

With most adults spending more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, addressing issues of mental health at work is very important for all people across the country.  A whopping 70% of employees in Canada are concerned about their psychological health and safety of their workplace. Whether it’s financial pressures, grief, physical illness, relationship conflicts, deadlines, or workplace bullying/sexual harassment, employees are constantly confronted with challenges to their psychological well-being. 

Sometimes, as in our example of Ella, those lacking the coping mechanisms necessary to manage these challenges may find themselves suffering from a mental illness. It’s not always apparent, but it’s important to understand that brokenness (whether it be from trauma or other risk factors) can express itself in a variety of ways that impact healthy boundaries and respectful work relationships. This isn’t always easy to comprehend, especially in a society where we are conditioned to automatically assume someone behaving badly is a “jerk.” Knowing the difference between a quirky personality and a legitimate mental health problem can be tricky. 

How Can You Help an Employee Who is Struggling?

There are several things you can do to help your employees who may be struggling.

  • Listen without judgement and with compassion.  Is there something happening at work that is contributing to an employee’s stress, such as sexual harassment or discrimination? Let your employees know they can come to you and be heard. 
  • Identify work problems caused by mental ill-health. 
  • As a manager, focus on fostering a safe environment where mental and emotional issues are discussed in general terms, and resources can be made readily available to provide struggling employees in confidence.
  • Continue to include your employee in the workplace’s usual activities.
  • It’s hard to know what to say when an employee returns to work after a medical leave. Staying silent can sometimes be the worst thing. Make sure your team member knows he/she was missed and is not only welcomed back, but appreciated as well. 
  • Advocate for healthy workplaces. Wellness strategies can improve everyone’s well-being and build inclusive spaces. 

Ultimately, it’s important that she/he feels part of a team. In short, a little bit of kindness goes a long way. 

What Are Some Strategies Your Workplace Can Implement? 

How can you help your employees to have a healthy work day? Here are some suggestions:

  • Train managers to understand mental health issues in the workplace and how to properly respond. Provide them with specific scripts and approaches.
  • Provide employees with resources on issues such as depression, addiction, anxiety, grief, etc. in a confidential format.
  • Referral programs should be offered to employees for extra support.
  • Ensure employees are aware of a written program to prevent and manage workplace bullying and harassment. 
  • Help employees deal with team members labelled as “difficult” by demonstrating ways they can be assertive. This can come in the form of sending employees for specific training in assertiveness. 

Mental Health and the Future of Work in Nonprofits 

In recent months, we have spent some time learning about the future of work in nonprofits, and this includes prioritizing mental health. The development of appropriate prevention and mental health promotion policies in the workplace is an increasing concern for many employers. Understanding the need for early intervention and treatment, as well as reintegrating an employee into the work environment, is also a challenge. Your organization can be ahead of the game by implementing this set of guidelines — the first of its kind — about Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace from the CSA Group. Download the free guidelines HERE

At the end of the day, we all deserve a physically and psychologically safe and healthy work environment. What programs/initiatives have you implemented in your workplace to make it a safe and healthy place of work? Stay tuned for Part 2 of our blog on mental health wellness in the workplace. 

By the PLC Team

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