Mental health matters. No one knows this better than Sylvie Giasson. She is a federal public servant and an author of two books on depression who has fought a long, hard battle with mental health issues.
Giasson fell into a major depression in 1991 after losing her job with the National Gallery of Canada. She was hospitalized for depression and anxiety and found herself away from work for two years. Since that time she has suffered two relapses but has battled back and now is working again. She wrote her first book in 1999.
“My finger was on the delete button because I knew many of my colleagues and my boss could read my book,” Giasson said. “I felt like coming to work with a big brown bag over my head.”
She said that most public sector executives do not speak up when they are under stress due to a stigma in the workplace. “It is very much seen as a career-limiting move.”
In an effort to rid the public service of negative stigmas related to speaking about stress, Giasson has spoken at conferences about the challenges she has faced and overcome. She assisted in the creation of Mental Health First-Aid in the Workplace: Manager’s Guide, designed to help managers in government departments and agencies gain a better understanding of mental health and mental illness, while teaching them how to spot warning signs and manage employees with mental health issues. She received the 2008 Michelle C. Comeau Human Resources Leadership Team Award for her efforts.
“Stress and distress in the workplace is the elephant in the room,” Giasson said. “If we spend 40 hours a week of our lives in the workplace this is a good place to spot symptoms of mental illness.”
Stress plays a big factor in the physical and mental well-being of public sector executives. Here are a few of the challenges currently facing public service executives.
Dr. Marion Balla, president of Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group in Ottawa, believes that there are two main sources of stress for public sector executives. The first is that they worry there is no room for advancement in the public service anymore. “I think the Gen Xs are waiting for their turn and there are a lot of Baby Boomers ahead of them,” Balla said. “They’re just there trying to do their best but feeling quite frustrated that even if they work 24/7, there isn’t any room for them to move further up the line.”
The second cause of work-related stress for many middle-aged executives is that younger executives are being promoted ahead of them. “The government at this point is promoting the 30 and 35-year-olds, and there are a lot of feelings about ‘How do I fit?’, ‘Where do I belong?’, and ‘What am I doing all of this for?’”
According to Balla, a significant difference between generations is that the younger ones expect a better work-life balance. “They’re not going to give up lunch and physical workouts and don’t believe the best thing to do is give your life to the workplace.” The challenge of having effective communication across generations is becoming increasingly difficult due to a lack of human contact partially due to social media, she added.
Technology and accessibility
New technology has made it easier for everyone to keep in touch. It has also made it easier for work to follow executives home and disrupt their work-life balance. Public sector executives at different levels within the organization are divided about the relationship between new technology and increased work-related stress.
The Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) has over the past 10 years sponsored three unique major studies focused on work and home life balance, healthy work environments, and the link between productivity, health and employee engagement. The most recent 2007 study was co-led by Dr. Wayne Corneil and Dr. Louise Lemyre of the University of Ottawa and had more than 2,000 public executive participants. According to the survey, 63 percent of EX-1 and EX-2 executives said that technology increases stress compared to 35 percent of EX-4 and EX-5 executives.
“There is an expectation, especially in the public service, that if you’re a lower and mid-level executive you’re always accessible and I think that’s wrong,” Hanny Toxopeus, CEO of APEX said. “We have to rethink that.”
Corneil said that conflicts can arise when the professional and personal life boundaries become blurred. “By and large most of us require a personal life and some type of personal support. That’s part of what we generate that provides our resiliency.” Corneil said that this will only get worse as long as it is part of the expected behaviour within the workplace.
Breaking the culture of silence
Public sector executives are often unwilling to admit they require assistance in dealing with a difficult issue such as stress-related mental health. “There’s a culture in the public service, especially among executives,” said Toxopeus. “We’re very reluctant to admit that we can’t get something done.”
Reluctance to admit they cannot finish a project often forces executives to work extremely long hours and give up a healthy work-life balance.
To help manage stress, APEX houses a confidential advisory service which is financially supported by deputy heads. Toxopeus said in 2008 the service was used by more than 250 executives. “We have here a very quick indicator at the marco level of what’s going on with people in terms of their stress levels,” said Toxopeus. “For an executive to come and talk to somebody and to admit that they have some issues means that it’s fairly serious.”
Promoting a healthier workplace
One of the challenges in improving the health of public sector executives lies within the culture of the workplace. If changes are to occur within the organization, an attitudinal shift will need to take place, and that will take time.
“Even if everyone agrees that ‘Yes, this is what we need to do,’ you’ve got literally hundreds of thousands of people that need to look at changing some of their behaviours,” Corneil said. “They need to unlearn the old behaviour and learn a new behaviour and then practice it over time. Anyone expecting that this is going to change dramatically in a short time period is not being realistic.”
Toxopeus said that public sector leaders have a responsibility to create a workplace that functions in a healthy way. “When there’s a disconnect between what we say and how we behave as leaders, it creates stress in the workplace.” She said that making sure executives feel well respected and valued is a key to reducing their stress levels.
Andrew Snook is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the Algonquin College journalism program. For an electronic copy of the manager’s guide to Mental Health First-Aid in the Workplace see: www.managers-gestionnaires.gc.ca/documents/hot/Mental%20Health%20Guide_final_eng.pdf
APEX SURVEY ON EXECUTIVE HEALTH AND WELLBEING
• APEX has been monitoring the health of government executives for over 10 years with three major studies, one in 1997, the second one in 2002 and the latest in 2007. Now longitudinal data is available allowing APEX to access information on the trends of public sector executive wellbeing and stress.
• APEX is recognized as an important contributor to the body of research on workplace health and its studies are cited in the new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the determinants of