Recent news in the media has highlighted competing perspectives on mental health, one story focusing on the importance of mental health privacy, and the other campaigning for speaking out about mental health.
Wednesday Jan 27, 2016 has been designated as the Bell Let’s Talk day, meaning let’s talk about mental illness, as part of Bell’s multi-year campaign around the issue. This seems in contrast to a recent human rights decision about student mental health privacy rights at York University. In this case, a student from York University won a two year human rights battle, in part through the intervention of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, so that York University students will no longer have to disclose their private mental health diagnosis in order to have academic accommodation. Effective immediately, similar to the rights that employees have in the workplace, students will not have to label their illness to get help. As in the workplace, there is still an obligation for an assessment by a physician and a description of what accommodations may be needed. See Toronto Star article: Student wins mental health fight for more details.
These reinforced privacy rights around mental illness are at odds with the openness that is encouraged by the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. Given employee privacy rights, should employers try to talk about mental health in the workplace?
Risks to employers who talk about employee mental health
There are demonstrable risks to employers for potential human rights claims if they try to discuss or to be sensitive to an employee whom they suspect may have issues with mental illness in such a way that discloses even vague details to co-workers. This is true even if the employer has good intentions to assist the employee. An example of this is found described in the Slaw legal blog article about disclosure of mental illness being breach of employee privacy here. The employer was fined for sharing a concern about an employee’s potential mental health issues, even though they had the best intentions of openness, providing assistance and promoting understanding for that employee. As an employer, talking about a specific employee’s mental health to other employees is a breach of employee privacy.
Employees need encouragement to talk about their own mental health
The Bell Let’s Talk campaign has provided a pop culture approach and specific resources to reduce the stigma of talking about mental health. The campaign reinforces that talking is part of removing the stigma. Sometimes the stigma around mental health, which increases isolation and disassociation, can be harder to deal with than the issue itself. It is the stigma that can stop people from reaching out to friends, co-workers and their employer for help.
As a Human Resources professional, I have observed that many employees may choose to share medical diagnosis with their co-workers and that they often receive generous support and help. Employees are not nearly as quick to share mental health issues because of the shame and blame that have been associated with these conditions. But even if an employee does not disclose mental health issues, people may make wrong assumptions anyways. So the shame and the stigma exist even more for mental health issues that are not talked about. The goal is for mental health illnesses to receive the same support and empathy as other physical illnesses rather than stigma and shame. Talking about mental health is part of the solution.
Employers need to listen, not talk
My take-away for employers regarding the Bell Let’s Talk mental health campaign is that employers need to listen. Employers can facilitate an openness and knowledge around mental health issues so that employees are empowered to speak up for themselves. Finally, as an employer or as a co-worker, if someone does come to you and speaks up, don’t trivialize the problem. Empathize by saying that you are sorry to hear and be sure to ask if there is anything that you can do to help.
Resources to facilitate employee conversations and education
The Bell Let’s Talk Toolkit is available online. It consists of both a PDF facilitator guide and a PowerPoint. The guide and handouts can help you to lead a group discussion and there are also conversation starters to help you to have a one-on-one discussion.
Mental Health First Aid courses are available through Mega Health at Work. These courses are recommended for HR professionals, managers and front-line staff, especially those in high stress front-line positions such as healthcare workers and first responders.
The Canadian Mental Health Association’s national branch is an excellent source of information on mental health topics.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is an American organization that offers fact sheets, booklets and brochures on mental health topics.
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. ~Leo Buscaglia
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