Four panelists from diverse backgrounds spoke about their personal experiences of healthy and unhealthy experiences in the workplace. Our panelists were:
Jessica Bruhn - An experienced peer support worker and mental health worker, Jessica is also the co-chair of the BC Provincial Family Council, and is an active speaker and youth mental health advocate.
Christie Duncan - Currently working at a post-secondary institution, Christie is also studying towards a bachelor's degree in Communications and Business. She hopes that by speaking out about her first hand experience with depression and anxiety, she will help others and help remove stigma surrounding mental illness.
Steven Ross - A longshore worker with more than 16 years of experience on the waterfront, Steven is also a longtime volunteer with his union. In his many leadership roles in the union and the workplace, he has addressed issues of substance use, as well as sexuality and race.
Debra Sutherland - With more than 28 years as a public school counselor under her belt, Debra is also a social justice, union, and political activist on LGBT issues in schools.
Answering questions posed by Kathryn Gretsinger while seated in armchairs on stage, the four panelists spoke about how how in some workplaces they did not feel safe sharing about mental illness, how in some workplaces they felt incredibly supported, and about how supervisors and coworkers responded when the did choose to share.
Responses at Work
Before Steven Ross decided to share information about his personal life at his workplace on the marina, he had experienced a huge amount of stress. He wondered how coworkers would react, but felt that it was important to disclose the information because as he said, "The workplace is my personal life as well." His colleagues at the marina ended up being hugely supportive, with many coming up to him individually to offer encouragement. Within two months, not only had his stress disappeared -- but so had a physical condition related to his stress!
Christie Dawson had experienced a period where she needed to take time off work in order to care for her mental health. This created a feeling of resentment with one of her colleagues, straining their working relationship to the point where they were referred to a conflict-resolution officer. After going through conflict resolution together, their work relationship was transformed to such a degree that they now serve as major supports for each other in the workplace.
Jessica Bruhn shared, "What was worse than the mental illness was not being able to talk about it. If you can't talk about it, then depression comes, which can be crippling. There's isolation, there's a loss of self-worth. There's a massive cost."
Debra Sutherland agreed with Bruhn, mentioning a quote by psychiatrist Carl Jung, "The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering." On the job, Sutherland cited two very supportive and trusted colleagues that make her workplace mentally healthy. However, she noted that many workplaces as a whole do not have a good, supportive, or understanding view of mental illness.
What Should Be Done?
Halfway through the panelist presentation, Kathryn Gretsinger asked: What needs to be done to make sure that people at work feel comfortable to deal with their mental health?
Steve Ross answered, "You have to constantly reinvent the wheel and the education around that wheel." For Ross, education is the key. He added that if workplaces do implement priorities for mental health, they need to do so for the right reasons.
Christie Dawson said that having representatives that you can go and talk to is hugely important. Representatives need to be educated. She also cited the importance of a culture of openness about mental health at the workplace. She makes a point to be very open to answering questions within the workplace about what she's gone through, and added that leaders need to model this kind of openness.
Debra Sutherland emphasized the importance of conversation and communication.
Jessica Bruhn echoed Dawson's emphasis on culture, saying, "Mental health needs to be integrated into the culture of the workplace. Not a subject that comes up once a year." As an example, she mentioned how Australians have R U OK Day, as a great example of mental health leadership. She also said that there was a huge need for workers to be validated when they take the risk of coming forward.