1 in 5 Canadians suffer from a mental illness each year, according to a 2011 report prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. However, despite this widespread prevalence, talking about mental health at work remains a challenge.

In June 2017, a Michigan-based web developer named Madalyn Parker sent an email about taking time off for her mental health. Her CEO replied to her email with a powerful note of encouragement and when she tweeted out their exchange, it quickly went viral.

A viral email is showing that one of the most powerful ways you can foster mental health

Source: Twitter

Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier, R.Psych, is Sun Life Financial’s Director of Workplace Health. She says Parker’s viral email is a powerful reminder of how managers affect employees’ mental health. “We can’t underestimate how significant the actions of a good boss can be. You (managers) have a great opportunity to contribute to changing people's perspective (on mental health),” says Pelletier.

What if you’re afraid to talk to your boss about mental health?

While Parker's CEO's note was incredibly supportive, many employees feel uncomfortable speaking to their employers about their mental health. If you want to talk to your boss about mental health in the workplace but are concerned about the reaction you might get, Pelletier suggests you first familiarize yourself with your company’s mental health policies. This will give you a sense of any support systems already in place. Next, if you’re anxious about speaking to your boss, ease your nerves by having a mock conversation ahead of time with a trusted friend or your mental health professional. Pelletier also suggests waiting until you feel better before having that conversation, if possible. This allows you to enter the conversation at a time when you feel less vulnerable, so it will be easier to manage.

Note: You don’t have to explain your circumstances in detail if you don’t feel comfortable, and can focus on what supports you need for your overall health.

How managers can support their employees’ mental health

Nitika Rewari is the Program Manager for Workplace Mental Health at the Mental Health Commission of Canada. She says many managers want to support their employees, but don't know how. “Sometimes it’s the lack of knowing what the right thing to do is, or the lack of process in place that hinders them from doing anything at all,” says Rewari.

To help organizations better support their employees, Rewari helped create the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) – a voluntary tool that helps employers create policies and environments where employees’ mental health can flourish.

The Standard was launched in 2013 and has been implemented across Canada by numerous organizations, including Sun Life. “It has brought mental health to the forefront in a way that nothing else has,” says Pelletier.

The Standard is based on extensive legal, scientific and social research and gives employers concrete examples of what it looks like when the workplace works to meet human psychological needs. “The Standard allows businesses to put checks and balance in the workplace by way of policies and procedures. That way if there are issues, supervisors know what they’re doing because they have guidelines,” says Rewari.

It also gives organizations training programs for managers and employees, such as mental health first-aid training. It’s important that managers take advantage of the training opportunities provided, says Pelletier: “Training gives you an opportunity to share what you’re learning and in that way you can become a champion for mental health in your workplace.”

Organizations that wish to implement the Standard can download a copy from the Mental Health Commission’s website for free.

5 self-care tips for stressful days

Beyond taking training provided by your organization, here are a few self-care practices you can do for yourself to improve your psychological well-being at work and at home:

  1. Invest time with people you enjoy being around
  2. Get enough exercise
  3. Eat nutritious food
  4. Practice meditation
  5. Ask about your workplace’s employee assistance program 

In addition, you may find it necessary to talk to a professional who can give you expert and customized insights regarding your situation. Many health plans offer coverage if you speak with a licensed professional, so check with your workplace health and benefits provider.

The bottom line

Parker’s viral email brought mental health to the forefront of workplace conversations both online and offline. Her story shows that one of the most powerful ways you can foster mental health for yourself and others is simply to talk about it. As Rewari notes, “The first and foremost way of reducing stigma is having a conversation. And that conversation doesn’t have to be with your supervisor; it could be with your peers.”