How leaders in the workplace can make space for mental health

Because employees may feel uncomfortable contacting a direct supervisor to discuss mental health issues, instituting a peer support or mentoring system can help them navigate the hierarchy.PeopleImages

Six months into her job at Toronto-based talent intelligence company Ideal, Kayla Kozan experienced her first nervous breakdown.

“It came after not sleeping for a few days,” says Ms. Kozan. “I was confused, paranoid, not knowing what was going on around me.”

One of the company’s co-founders took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After the breakdown, Mrs. Kozan returned home to live with her family in Regina.

“I was on leave for more than a year, which is longer than I had worked at Ideal,” he says. “So when I saw a call from the office, I knew they were calling me to say goodbye.”

At the time of the call, Ms. Kozan was going through a depressive episode, feeling lost, exhausted, and like she was no good at anything.

“Instead of letting me go, they called to say they wanted to take me to Toronto to join the company Christmas party,” he says.

Ms. Kozan describes the experience as “HR excellence, not HR compliance,” at a time when she needed it most.

“That someone else outside of my family believed in me validated me much more because I had a hard time believing in myself,” she says.

Create psychological safety in the office

How confident do you feel talking about mental health at work?

It’s a question that has become increasingly relevant through the COVID-19 pandemic. A Angus Reid Institute Study January found that one in three Canadians say they are struggling with their mental health, with 37 per cent reporting feeling anxious and 23 per cent saying they are depressed.

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“The power of the workplace to create psychological safety for its employees cannot be underestimated,” says Kim Foster Yardley, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist who specializes in performance psychology.

Mental health issues can be a challenge for employers and staff alike, he says, because stigma can stop people from speaking out and symptoms can vary in severity.

“With mental health, it’s very hard to pinpoint what’s going on. Someone can go from being okay one day to not getting up the next day,” says Ms. Foster Yardley. “It’s not something that’s easy to bring up at work, so what we need is a more flexible and reliable workplace.”

Because employees may feel uncomfortable contacting a direct supervisor to discuss mental health issues, Ms. Foster Yardley says that instituting a peer support or mentoring system can help them navigate the hierarchy.

Another way companies can support mental health is to encourage their employees to schedule mental health days.

“Allowing people to have a day off from mental health to go learn something or go to a park and spend time in nature can be very helpful,” he says.

But employees must be willing to take that “me” time and leave work behind, and that includes those in management.

“There will always be something you have to do,” she says. “If you don’t book it, it’s never going to happen.”

Leading wellness by example

Some Canadian companies have they publicly rolled up their sleeves in response to the rise in mental health problems during the pandemic.

In 2021, Coke Canada Bottling Limited raised the maximum coverage for employee mental health benefits from $1,500 to $5,000 per year and expanded coverage to include social workers and psychotherapists. On April 1, Bank of Nova Scotia will increase its mental health coverage from $3,000 to $10,000 annually for eligible employees and their dependents.

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Walmart Canada partnered with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global in 2021, introducing an app to help the company’s 100,000 associates prioritize personal care.

“The app is an educational tool to learn about burnout and anxiety, so people can recognize the signs when they need to ask for help,” says Nabeela Ixtabalan, executive vice president of corporate and people affairs at Walmart Canada.

Ms. Ixtabalan, a self-described former workaholic, says it’s important for everyone, including supervisors and managers, to be honest about their own mental health.

“We have to stop pretending that anxiety, depression and burnout don’t affect us,” she says. “Leaders have to stop pretending to be superhuman.”

It is a sentiment shared by Ms. Kozan. She launched a corporate mental wellness consulting agency called maximum wellness in 2019, teaching mindfulness classes and hosting workshops for North American companies including Wealthsimple, Amazon, and KPMG.

Ms. Kozan’s mindfulness workshops are voluntary for employees, but she says she notices a significant difference in attendance when leaders show up.

“The leadership team drives attendance. It’s something you have to lead by example,” she says. “Some leaders worry that if they open up the conversation and people come to them, they won’t know what to do, but sharing stories goes a long way for people.”

If in doubt, just show compassion, says Ms. Kozan.

“You don’t need to know the background and you don’t need to ask for additional information,” she says. “It’s just asking. [yourself]’What’s the most humane thing to do?’”

Interested in more perspectives on women in the workplace? Find all the stories in the hub hereand subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Do you have comments about the series? Send us an email to [email protected].

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