Troubled minds in the workplace

Susan Jakobson, of all people, might reasonably have been expected to recognize and act on the signs of mental illness.

OTTAWA — Susan Jakobson, of all people, might reasonably have been expected to recognize and act on the signs of mental illness.

A nursing supervisor with a long history in managing human resources, Jakobson nonetheless was slow to seek help when cancer treatment and a suicide in her family combined to send her spiralling into depression.

“I think when you’re actually the person who has the illness, you might have all the academic knowledge around it and all the things you think you should know — but when it’s about you, it’s a totally different situation,” Jakobson said in an interview.

“It’s different being the patient than being the health-care professional in these situations.”

Mental illness in the workplace is a huge issue hiding in plain sight, a situation made clear in a new report by the Conference Board of Canada released Monday.

The report, Building Mentally Health Workplaces, is based on a national survey of more than 1,000 employees — including almost 500 front-line managers, with follow-up interviews for some. The findings bookend a new initiative by the Mental Health Commission of Canada to establish national standards for psychologically healthy workplaces.

“When it comes to mental health, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent,” says the Conference Board report. “It is time for a change.”

The report says that in 2009-10, “78 per cent of short-term disability claims and 67 per cent of long-term disability claims in Canada were related to mental-health issues.”

The personal and financial cost is staggering.

Jakobson, a Toronto-based health professional who is the principal of Healthy Minds at Work, says she was 53 and at the top of her game — “going strong, working at a job I absolutely loved” — when things began to unravel.

A breast-cancer diagnosis which coincided with the suicide of a beloved niece turned her life upside down.

“The problem was my symptoms actually got worse because of the way my situation was managed at work by one particular senior manager,” she told a news conference in Ottawa last week.

“Unfortunately this person didn’t recognize that there was an impact of my physical illness and the loss of a loved one on my mental health, and that — even though I was back at work — I was still trying to recover.”

Jakobson was “increasingly disorganized” and unable to concentrate, and worked longer hours in a fruitless effort to compensate. She became short-tempered with co-workers and family, couldn’t sleep and lost her appetite.

“I started believing I was incompetent,” she said. “I remember actually having to bargain with myself to get out of bed in the morning.”

Hers is hardly a unique situation.

The Conference Board found that 12 per cent of its survey respondents were currently experiencing a mental-health issue and another 32 per cent said they’d faced one in the past.

The report found “a significant disconnect” between the perceptions of executives and employees about how well their workplaces deal with mental illness. Four fifths of executives felt their companies promote mentally healthy work environments, yet just 30 per cent of employees felt the same way.

Almost half of all managers — 44 per cent — had no training in managing workers with mental-health issues.

The report states that despite the challenges, “most solutions are relatively inexpensive to implement, but require flexibility and creativity on the part of employers.”

For Jakobson, it took her the better part of a year to come to terms with her mental illness and “accept treatment.” After switching jobs within her company and getting support from friends, family and senior managers her health improved “fairly quickly.”

“My situation has brought home the need for supports for both employers and employees,” she said.

“If I’ve learned anything to help employers it is this: That an actual important part of recovering is being at work, is going to work. But don’t expect the employee to be 100 per cent when they get back.”

Jakobson said “you need a thoughtful, supportive, planned way to return someone to work.”

The Conference Board report suggests changing corporate culture is one of the more difficult challenges in this regard.

“Like any successful venture within an organization, the full support and involvement of senior leaders is required for change to occur . . . . It is still relatively uncommon in organizations for senior management to openly discuss the importance of mental health.”

But the report doesn’t spare co-workers or unions.

The survey found some employees returning from a mental illness “felt isolated, ignored or shunned by colleagues,” a reception that increased feelings of shame and embarrassment.

The survey also found that “somewhat surprisingly, employees are no more comfortable disclosing a mental-health issue to a union representative or shop steward than they are to their supervisor.”

Louise Bradley, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said publicly airing workplace mental-health issues is the place to start ending the stigma.

Bradley compares it to the early years of AIDS “and even around breast cancer, for Pete’s sakes, people didn’t talk about.”

Jakobson is doing her part, putting a public face on an illness that too often lurks behind the cubicle next door.

“It still is about a three-year journey for me, but I’m in a good place now,” she said.

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