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Safeguard Magazine

Let’s talk about it! — Kindness and conversation

In August, 450 public sector employees from across the country gathered in Wellington to learn about mental health. The Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work conference was an event that delegates had specifically requested, telling the Government Health and Safety Lead at a previous conference that this was something they needed to be talking about. And talk they did, with openness, honesty and vulnerability. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports on the keynote speaker.

Mary Deacon, chair of the largest corporate mental health initiative in the world, Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk programme, describes herself as a “mental health do-gooder.”

It’s an identity born out of the pain of losing two brothers to suicide, in separate incidents several years apart, but it’s one that she carries with pride.

“Mental health affects us all,” she says simply. “Canadian statistics show one in every five people will experience a mental health episode during their lifetime.

“Mental illness is also the number one cause of workplace disability in our country. It accounts for 30% of all short-term disability claims, and 70% of costs.”

Under Deacon’s leadership Bell Canada has been a key funder, and early adopter, of Canada’s ground-breaking Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

The standard is a best practice guide, the only one of its kind in the world, developed by representatives from all relevant stakeholder groups, including businesses, not-for-profit organisations, unions, and those with specialised knowledge of mental health.

Compliance is voluntary, but Deacon believes it should – and may in time – become mandatory, as with any other H&S framework. And that, she says, is the approach the standard uses, identifying a range of psychosocial risk factors – things like involvement and influence, or leadership and expectations – that must be managed, just as other work-related risks are.

“At Bell Canada we’ve embedded these risk factors into our existing health and safety processes, and mapped them into our annual team survey. We only had to add two questions, but it’s allowed us to develop an internal mental health index, which we use to shape our action plans.”

The company uses a range of strategies to improve understanding of mental health across the board, give easy access to support services and resources, train managers and other staff to identify and assist those who may be struggling, and tailor its sick leave and return-to-work processes to accommodate mental health needs.

“Without doubt the game-changer at Bell has been our mandatory mental health training for all our people leaders,” Deacon says.

“It’s given our managers confidence. They now know what the early warning signs are, how to have difficult conversations, and how to support individuals, and their wider teams.”

Alongside these significant initiatives, however, are a number of small, simple things that anyone can do to help foster a safe, stigma-free environment.

“Stigma is the primary reason two-thirds of people with mental health issues don’t seek help, so tackling stigma is job number one.

“There are things we can all do in our daily lives that will build an environment where people feel safe to talk.”

First off, we need to remember that the language we use matters.

“We’d never say a person was ‘cancerous’, but we will say someone’s ‘crazy.’ Such words are easy to use, but they can hurt, so call it out if you see it happening.”

Being a good listener is also important.

“If you take the time to listen, it might be the first time that that person feels they’ve really been heard – and that could be the first step towards them getting help, breaking the silence, and moving towards recovery.”

On top of that, she urges people to simply be kind to one another.

“Old-fashioned kindness is in short supply sometimes in our world, but it’s something we can all do.”

Good mental health literacy is also critical.

“Be educated about the facts. There are so many myths around mental illness, and they create fear.

“It’s a very common myth that people with mental illness are violent, but the reality is they’re more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

“There’s also a belief that they’re not really sick – just lazy, or it’s a moral issue. Simply recognising it as a health issue goes a long way towards challenging the stigma.”

But most of all, Deacon says, keep the conversations about mental health going.

“Keep talking. Bring it out of the shadows. Make it part of our public discourse – and a greater political priority for action.”


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