Mental health problems are increasingly recognized today. By some calculations, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year. Among those that are affected, two out of three who should receive mental health services or treatment choose not to seek it, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The stigma associated with mental illness is seen as a badge of shame. To eliminate this reputation and provide support to employees, the Government of Canada has established a framework to address mental health in the workplace.
Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) first recognized the need for an all-encompassing wellness plan to prevent illness and promote healthy workplace practices in April 2014. Although at that time there were a number of existing programs and services that supported mental health in the workplace, there was no integrated Government of Canada approach to address it within the departments.
That summer, ESDC began to lay the groundwork by working closely with the Policy Health and Safety Committee and other key stakeholders to research and develop a Mental Health Framework for the department. Forums to share stories on mental health in the workplace that included employees and the management, along with union representatives, were organized.
It proved to be a well-received initiative and to carry it further, senior management made a decision to identify a Mental Health Champion (at the Assistant Deputy Minister level). It envisioned this person as acting with the mandate to lead a group of employees, at different levels, to develop an innovative and comprehensive workplace wellness plan. The hope was that it would offer concrete actions to support employees and strengthen workplace programs and practices.
Ms. Sara Filbee, the Assistant Deputy Minister for the Atlantic Canada Region, was asked to lead the team. It would include a wide cross-section of managers, employees, and human resources professionals and it quickly went to work. According to Filbee, it was critical to “create an atmosphere where it is okay—and not limiting in any way— to discuss mental health.”
Filbee knew the challenge personally. She was first diagnosed with depression in her late 30s and struggled to keep it private. Now she was being asked to wade into an issue that was harrowingly familiar. Finally, in December 2015, she picked up the gauntlet, and did something she did not have to do: she declared to her colleagues and staff that she had been suffering from a form of depression most of her life.
What led to that brave step was her belief that “leadership is about courage.” If she wanted others to talk about their mental health challenges then she had to be courageous enough to do so herself.
Filbee blogged about it. Through the years she applied that approach and, with the use of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, she has successfully regained control over the fears, anxieties and negative patterns that have plagued her. But it wasn’t easy, Filbee remembers “the pain of being in a black hole” when she was first diagnosed.
She also underlined the positive: the luck of living in Canada, the privilege of working in the public service with people she admired and respected, the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career and, not least, the happiness of family and friends.
The challenge remained: she admitted that she still has to “manage the fears and negative thoughts associated with depression.” She encouraged the thought that employees “must take personal responsibility for our health to the extent that we are able, including our mental well-being.” She argued that “physical illnesses can be treated effectively, mental health challenges can also be managed.”
Filbee and her team launched ESDC’s Integrated Mental Health Framework and three-year Action Plan in May 2015. The Plan offers a range of services, from concrete activities that center on the “promotion of health,” to the “prevention of harm” and the “resolution of incident and concerns.”
Since its launch, ESDC has seen many positive results from the program with many employees sharing their personal experiences and joining the conversation through vlogs, blogs, articles and testimonials.
The ‘mental health in the workplace’ initiative started out as an internal priority for the department, ESDC’s Labour Program also used its role as regulator to promote the issue externally, across all federal jurisdiction workplaces. The Labour Program broke new ground in recognizing and promoting psychological issues as an OHS consideration for federal jurisdiction workplaces, beyond the traditional focus on physical conditions and hazards that may contribute to illness or injury. Activities undertaken by the Labour Program have helped to shine a light on the importance of psychological health and safety in the workplace and positioned ESDC-Labour Program and federal jurisdiction workplaces at the forefront of a nation-wide effort to better respond to the challenges of mental health in the workplace.
ESDC’s Framework and Action Plan was also recognized in the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Twenty-Third Annual Report to the Prime Minister as a guide for the development of tools and resources for employees and managers to support good mental health practices in the workplace.
Recently, TBS and the Public Service Alliance of Canada have worked together to improve how the government addresses psychological health and safety in the workplace and, in 2016, the Government of Canada adopted the Federal Public Service Workplace Mental Health Strategy, committing the government to exploring aspects of mental health with its employees and to listening to their needs. The Strategy focuses on three strategic goals; Change the culture, Build capacity and Measure report and continuously improve. This government-wide initiative, according to Filbee, demonstrates that “no one person can do it by themselves, workplace wellbeing is truly a team sport.”
With ESDC embracing the importance of mental health in the workplace in the same way as physical health, the Integrated Mental Health Framework is just the commencement of a blueprint that will go a long way to encourage everyone “facing mental health challenges to seek support.”
Looking back on this stage of her career, Filbee sees a positive element, no matter what happens, both the good and the bad. “It all works to make us great,” she said. Because of her experience, she is more “aware of the impact of personal challenges that we all face from time to time,” which has helped her to become better leader today.
She and her intrepid team were recognized for their valiant efforts by APEX last spring. This award, according to APEX, recognized the successful delivery of a multi-disciplinary project that contributed to the improved delivery for employees at all levels that directly supports workplace wellbeing.