An employer perspective
From "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 14
Volunteer Victoria is a volunteer recruitment and referral centre. With six staff members and more than 100 volunteers, we help place 16,000 individuals each year in various volunteer opportunities. We offer services to people of all ages and stages of life and we try to meet people where they are at—literally and figuratively.
In terms of employment, we know that participating in volunteer service is often the bridge between where someone is and where they want to go. We celebrate being able to inspire people and help them find new opportunities through volunteerism.
I have been the Executive Director at Volunteer Victoria since June 2011, and I have supervised and worked alongside staff and volunteers with differing abilities for more than 25 years. My grandfather had a disability, and he taught our family that he could do anything. He just sometimes needed to do things a bit differently.
One of our volunteers introduced us to the At Work program, a Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) initiative that helps people recovering from mental illness or addiction find meaningful employment and connect with employment supports. When Mike came to us from At Work, we were excited to have him join us. We place volunteers in work environments every day, and we try to articulate and establish conditions for success. This was an opportunity for Volunteer Victoria to create a space for someone with unique challenges, knowing that we could all learn and grow from the experience.
We ask all our employees and volunteers to tell us what they need to feel welcome and to experience success in the workplace. Typically, we offer a quiet space where a team member can go to get away from people or stresses, as well as flexible schedules so that team members have choice about when to start and end their work day or work week. We encourage our staff members to take more breaks, go for walks and share their thoughts about their work experiences with colleagues.
We also emphasize balance in work and life commitments. As an office with many volunteers, we have great flexibility to reassign work, to shift schedules and to build paid and unpaid teams that support each other. We discuss roles and responsibilities and ensure that work is fairly distributed and that everyone is able and willing to take on their share. We sometimes sacrifice speed and efficiency in our desire to create a flexible workspace—but it is worth the effort.
A few other practices help foster a supportive environment. For example, we have office companion dogs, and supervisors make sure to verbally check in with staff on a daily basis, scheduling more formal check-ins as they are needed. As an organization, we regularly host discussions about wellness, with conversations focused on asset building and gratitude.
At the same time, we make room for statements like “This is not my best day.” We all know that everyone experiences good and bad days at the office; it’s okay to acknowledge negative stress and change.
We let team members know directly that we know everyone makes mistakes and no one is expected to finish all of the work on their desk every day. This helps reduce pressure and creates an environment where people feel safe to decide for themselves what a healthy work schedule looks like and what they might need in terms of support.
Mike was very open about his physical and mental health journey and made it easy for us to learn how to support him—on good days and on not-so-good days. We discussed accommodation on Day One. Mike became even less anxious over time as he learned to trust that we were here to support him and that he had lots of time to learn new skills and, if necessary, to fail at new things without our judging him.
a few comments from staff member Mike
Throughout my life, I’ve been judged because of my mental illness; both my illness and the judgement I feel from others sometimes affect how productive I am in the workplace. But when I came to Volunteer Victoria via the At Work program, I was made to feel like I was a team member from the beginning. It makes all the difference in the world when you know you’re not being judged.
There’s something special about the people at Volunteer Victoria. They have all seen me get manic and lose control of my emotions, yet I never feel like I’m going to be treated any differently the next day. It’s as if, as far as they’re concerned, the manic episode never happened.
Because of Volunteer Victoria’s supportive environment, it was easy to talk about my mental and physical disabilities. The genuine caring relationships that are built at Volunteer Victoria daily reinforce to me that there are real people in the world. When you’re around real people, it’s easy to talk openly about your journey.
The accommodations made for me were fantastic. If I needed to, I could leave the office or take a day off to sort my head out. Knowing I could do that was priceless; being able to take a longer lunch or an extra break goes a long way.
Productivity is crucial to the success of any business. But a person is way more productive at work if they’re not trying to sort out their own stuff at the same time. The most important expectation at Volunteer Victoria is that individuals take care of themselves before they do anything else. In this kind of working environment, more and more often all I need to do to re-focus is look around the office at this supportive community of colleagues and friends.
Mike’s anxiety decreased and was eventually replaced with more self-confidence and the knowledge that he is a valued member of our team. He contributed to our research and organization projects and learned new software programs and skills in data management and team communication. Our entire team benefited from Mike’s success in these areas.
Mike taught us new skills as well, including how to look for signs of his more frequent physical ailments, such as headaches, body aches, an inability to concentrate, increased anxiety and any obvious continued lack of sleep. We also learned how to watch for obsessive behaviours and over-involvement in projects, as well as a lack of communication or motivation and social withdrawal, including verbal and non-verbal cues, body language and the more obvious signs like missed deadlines or a change in the quality of Mike’s work or in his interactions with other staff and volunteers.
At Volunteer Victoria, our goal is to create a workplace where people feel safe to experience the entire continuum of human emotion and to provide team members with a range of tools to address needs and challenges and to celebrate milestone moments. We let Mike take the lead on how much he could handle on any given day. With Mike’s input, we agreed as a group that he would check in with us in writing or verbally on the days when he was not able to work so that we knew he was okay.
Mike’s ability to communicate openly with us about his mental health journey was freeing for the whole team in many ways, providing us with the opportunity to work together to find solutions for him. It takes courage to be so open.
At Volunteer Victoria, we work with a diverse group of volunteers, some of whom have physical disabilities and mobility issues and some of whom have mental health challenges. In general, it is easier for our team to openly discuss how we can accommodate volunteers with a physical disability and how we can provide services to people with mobility issues. Once the accommodation is made, it is often permanent and doesn’t need to be varied.
But mental illness sometimes requires that we pay closer attention to the subtle changes in mood or abilities that occur over time, and that we develop a deeper understanding of the positive and negative stresses that have an impact on wellness and illness. Not everyone facing mental health challenges is naturally as openly communicative as Mike. Working with people with mental health issues can be less intuitive than working with people with physical disabilities. In all cases, we have to follow the lead of the person on the mental health journey when we consider what accommodations might be helpful.
Many people make assumptions about what it will be like to work with people on a mental health journey and what workplace accommodations will have to be made for employees facing mental health challenges. But mental illness is varied, and the accommodations needed are not always obvious. And many of the negative stereotypes I often hear about people with mental illness are simply false.
Some of our most consistent and reliable long-term volunteers are individuals on a mental health journey. In my experience, those volunteers have been caring, productive, funny and very responsible adults who greatly value an organization where they feel welcome and safe and who bring a sense of deep compassion and human understanding to their work.
Volunteer Victoria’s five steps to clear discussion
Volunteer Victoria uses a five-step process that both supervisors and staff employ when they have to discuss difficult issues. The five steps can be used as a prompt for eliciting information from someone who is suffering or as a guide for those seeking help.
About At Work Victoria
At Work/Au Travail is a national collaboration established by the Canadian Mental Health Association in 14 communities across Canada. Using a strength-based approach, the collaboration assists people with mental health challenges to connect with meaningful employment supports, helping to make Canada a diversified, equitable place for all people to work.
At Work Victoria serves the Greater Victoria area and the Cowichan Valley. We ensure that our job seekers are highly motivated to secure employment and possess the necessary skills needed to complete the job.
Small and medium-sized businesses are eligible to receive funding to cover the costs associated with hiring a new employee. Accessing a subsidy is easy, and the amount of the subsidy and the duration can be negotiated based on the employer’s needs.
For more information about At Work Victoria, contact Rebecca George by email at email@example.com or by phone at 250-858-1505.
- Specifically name the issue that is the source of emotional or physical discomfort (e.g., “I have anxiety”).
- Articulate how that issue is having an impact on your experience, either generally or in the moment (e.g., “Anxiety impacts my ability to concentrate for long periods of time”).
- Talk about the potential consequences if the issue is not addressed (e.g., “I need to address my anxiety before it escalates into a more significant illness that will impact my work”).
- Negotiate terms for change (e.g., “I have some suggestions for ways that might help me work more efficiently and reduce my anxiety, like creating a schedule with more breaks, moving my workstation to a quieter location, temporarily reducing the number of projects that require detailed work, etc.”).
- Set a timeline for implementing change, and set a check-in date (e.g., “Can we make the changes and meet in a week to see how things are going and set a longer-term plan?”).
By being proactive and using a clear and thoughtful process, an employee can control the message and the emotions associated with difficult and personal conversations. It takes courage to give an employer an opportunity to accommodate one’s needs and to encourage wellness in the workplace. And it takes a flexible and compassionate employer to respond appropriately to an employee in need of support. But the benefits of retaining staff and volunteers on a mental health journey far outweigh the costs of any accommodations that might have to be made.
About the author
Lisa is the Executive Director of Volunteer Victoria, the only volunteer recruitment and referral centre serving Greater Victoria
Visions would like to thank Rebecca George with the CMHA At Work program in Victoria for her help securing contributors for this article