Creating a Supportive Culture in the Workplace

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Recent events have pushed the issue of mental health in the workplace to the forefront of discussion in Canada. This past May, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released Canada’s first mental health strategy, Changing Directions, Changing Lives, with an aim to correct years of underfunding and lack of attention to mental health services. The strategy aims to improve mental health prevention and promotion, access to services, uphold the rights of people with mental illness and improve collaboration between government and stakeholders. Prioritizing mental health through a national strategy is becoming increasingly important as the status quo is currently estimated to cost the Canadian economy upwards of $50 billion a year. 

However, for the millions of Canadians who are affected by a mental health issue this isn’t news. We know how workplaces have been heavily impacted by mental health concerns for a long time now. Indeed, a recent Canadian study reported how 44% of employees surveyed stated they were either currently experiencing a mental health issue or have experienced one in the past. Mental health is currently the number one cause of disability in the workplace in Canada, currently accounting for 30% of disability claims and 70% of the associated costs. 

So why is talking about mental health still very much taboo at work? Burnout, anxiety and depression are common ailments in the workplace, but they are often still overlooked. Perhaps this is due to negative attitudes and stigma towards mental illness remaining prevalent at work, which in turn prevents open and honest discussions about the topic. This leads to the uncomfortable scenario where managers feel they are being supportive, while employees feel differently, and a quiet tension persists as no one talks openly about mental health issues or concerns. 

The burden of creating a supportive workplace usually falls upon management. While management surely has a leadership role to play in creating a healthy culture in the workplace, every employee has a responsibility to contribute as well, especially if management isn’t as involved or committed as they could be. A supportive culture in the workplace that is driven by employees, rather than management, may also have the benefit of not feeling manufactured or forced upon employees. 

As such, there are many ways an employee can help build a more supportive culture in the workplace. Here are some ways each of us can help contribute to building a positive work culture where every employee feels supported:

  • Change the water cooler discussion. Last week, I came down with a bug and missed a day of work. When I returned, nearly every co-worker asked me how I was feeling.  It's important to show a co-worker who missed time due to mental health the same courtesy. Neglecting to ask, or ignoring the fact anything happened, only perpetuates tension, assumptions and stigma towards mental health in the workplace.
  • Take a mental health day. One day off might not be the answer to serious underlying problems which lead to burnout at work, but it can help. Decide if you need rest, fun or maybe just a day to address your priorities and check up on how your day-to-day life is unfolding. Make sure to book it in advance! This will open up opportunities to talk about mental health at work while also allowing you to prepare for the day off, meaning you can prioritize your workload in advance and not feel stressed about falling behind.
  • Be aware of how everyone else is doing at work. We often internalize our own mental health while ignoring the fact that others may be feeling the same way. Evaluate your workplace – is everyone in the office receiving consistent support? If not, how can you help create it? How can you contribute to your co-workers in a way which emphasizes a healthy work culture? 
Making the effort to personally exhibit the behavior required to create a supportive culture at work is an important part of changing attitudes towards mental health. It encourages each of us to be part of the solution!


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