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The role of the workplace in employee health and well-being

Kristin Bower

Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 25-27

Remember the days when employees were encouraged to leave their personal lives at home—and even admired for doing so? As long as you came to work, performed your job with a smile on your face and didn’t make any waves, all was good. Health problems or challenges in your personal life? Keep them to yourself. The workplace was not a place for sharing.

Chances are you may still work in an environment like that. Maybe you even manage one. But times are changing, and so should employers. We currently live in a world where many generations work together. Different generations have different ways of working and interacting. They also have different expectations of an employer and different visions of what a career or job should be. Smart employers are actively seeking ways to adapt to changing demographics such as an aging population, new immigrants and more people with disabilities entering the workforce.

As a human resources professional for the past 15 years, I have seen work environments and management styles change. My own workplace has shifted over the past decade to one that places more emphasis on diversity of thought, experience and background and places a greater value on individualism in terms of personality, learning and creativity. True diversity can bring with it innovation and adaptability. With greater employee diversity, however, we all have a responsibility to embrace inclusion and recognize individuals’ unique needs. How well are we Canadians doing that? In my estimation, not always so well.

We are probably all familiar with that one employee or colleague who calls in sick a lot. Perhaps we think it’s annoying. We might wonder to ourselves, ‘Why can’t that person just get it together, show up, and do the job like everybody else?’ In the old-school workplace scenario, the manager’s first instinct was likely towards discipline. The employee does something wrong. The employee is punished. Followed, more likely than not, with: The employee goes on “stress leave.”

Imagine, now, if employers turned that scenario upside down—if, instead of taking a disciplinary approach immediately, the manager asked the employee to share why he or she had been taking more sick days. How might a caring, human-centred approach change this situation? Sometimes an employee is abusing the system, and a disciplinary approach is the right way to go. But increased sick days can also signal a different type of problem. A common sign of mental health issues such as depression or addiction, and of chronic physical illness or even caregiving, for example, is increased absenteeism. Many managers get busy with the “work” and forget that managing their employees and removing barriers to their doing good work is actually their key responsibility.

Miscommunications and misunderstandings about employee health and well-being happen every day in workplaces across Canada. According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, 78% of depressed Canadians at work are concerned that they will lose their job because of their depression.1 They are afraid to disclose their illness to employers, managers, or colleagues because of stigma and discrimination. In general, it’s safe to say that we still have a workplace culture that discourages signs of vulnerability. But is asking for help or seeking to understand another person a weakness? I think it’s actually a sign of strength.

Employers are beginning to come around, but we still have far to go. The fastest growing category of disability costs to Canadian employers is that of depression.1 How we currently react to this reality is telling. The Mood Disorders Society of Canada reports that 84% of employers have no process in place to address the significant changes in employee productivity and behaviour that often accompany a mental illness.1

As a person who has experienced several episodes of major depressive disorder over the past 20 years, I have taken four disability leaves from work. In the first instance, I resigned from my job after I had been on leave for a month because I was simply too embarrassed to return—the self-stigma that I experienced was overwhelming. My manager supported me, but I didn’t have faith that my colleagues would.

That was 13 years ago, and I have progressed along the path of self-acceptance and understanding of my illness. But employers have been slower to make that journey. I have become much more open about my mental health challenges and what I need to be healthy and to do my best work. My openness hasn’t always been met warmly by past employers, however. I returned from one leave to find that my desk had been reassigned; the new occupant had left her things all over it. When I moved to my new desk, the computer didn’t work. This was all on day one. A warm welcome back? Not really.

In my current role, my focus is on diversity and inclusion. I consider how to create a more inclusive workplace for employees from all backgrounds, disabilities, ages and stages of life. But just as the old proverb tells us that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire organization of committed employees to create a welcoming and inclusive workplace. Most notably, our Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, an employee resource group, is dedicated to raising awareness of diversity and inclusion through campaigns and conversations throughout our organization. I am reminded often when I speak with colleagues and fellow employees that we all go through difficult times at some point. Do employers have a responsibility to help their employees through these times? Yes, I think so. In my informal conversations with friends and employees who have taken a leave of absence from work for disability reasons or for personal or parental reasons, a common theme of exclusion keeps coming up:

  • “When I was on leave, I felt like my manager and colleagues forgot about me.”

  • “Things changed at work, but nobody let me know about things that would affect me.”

  • “Once I was on leave, I didn’t hear from anybody at work.”

  • “Before I went on my planned leave, my colleagues started to slowly not include me in work discussions.”

Is any of this intentional? I don’t believe so, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen the negative impact on the person who feels forgotten or undervalued. There are also many amazing managers and employers out there doing great work to ensure that employees are supported. Here are some tried and true tips on how to support your employees about to go on leave:

  • Ask the employee how he or she would prefer to maintain contact during the leave.

  • Don’t make assumptions about what an employee may need leading up to parental leave or retirement. Many employees still want to be part of work conversations; don’t discount them as uninterested or disengaged.

  • Ensure that your employee has access to benefits information and employee assistance resources.

  • If your employee is on a disability leave, ask what he or she would like communicated to colleagues. It is the employee’s choice what to disclose, if anything—not yours.

  • When planning for your organization, consider the career plans, skills and abilities of the person on leave. It’s not uncommon for employers to focus on the absent employee’s current disability, forgetting about all the things the employee will be capable of once he or she returns.

  • Connect with your employee a few weeks before he or she returns to work. Ask if any accommodations will be needed (a modified work space, reduced hours, etc.). And ask how the employee would like to be welcomed back. For example, a large group of colleagues gathered around a returning colleague’s desk may be anxiety-inducing.

Creating a welcoming, empathetic and inclusive workplace isn’t that difficult. It takes intention and commitment. The question is simple: Will you remain that old-school employer, or shall we build healthier, stronger workplaces and communities together?

The answer is as simple as the question.

 
About the author

Kristin’s 15-year HR career has taken her from luxury hotels to employment agencies to banking. Her role as People Solutions Advisor, Innovation and Impact for Canada’s largest credit union combines her love of HR and dedication to social advocacy and disability awareness. Kristin also authors “Adventures of a Survivor,” a mental health blog

Footnotes:
  1. Mood Disorders Society of Canada. (2009). Quick Facts: Mental Illness and Addiction in Canada, 3rd ed. www.mooddisorderscanada.ca/documents/Media%20Room/Quick%20Facts%203rd%20Edition%20Eng%20Nov%2012%2009.pdf

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