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A Tale of Two Workplaces

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work Communications Training (formerly Diversity at Work in London)

I was on the job for only a few days when I was introduced to Peter, the senior statistician. Peter, with his jovial disposition welcomed me as the new employee, offering to help me get more acclimatized to my new role. A few days later a shocking major detail emerged about Peter; under a long-sleeved shirt which mistakenly rose, I noticed that Peter had massive scars on his wrists. Before long Peter began to disclose he suffered from depression as a result of his mother’s suicide when he was a small child. One of the staff had revealed he was in the hospital last year due to a suicide attempt. The staff had all gone to visit him in the hospital --they loved Peter.

Despite his best efforts, some days he did not make it into work on time. There were times where he appeared to look like he had slept in his work clothes. Nevertheless, he always made it to work and got his work done.

Steve, the business owner, was a results-oriented kind of guy who valued Peter’s productivity and insights. Some nights when Peter had trouble sleeping, he would come in later the next morning and stay until the evening to finish. None of the staff judged Peter – he was part of the team. In fact, Peter mentioned many times how much he loved his workplace and how his colleagues were instrumental in his recovery from depression.

Steve had built a culture of compassion, teamwork and staff appreciation. It was no wonder he managed to retain hard-working, skilled employees. Consequently, this attitude trickled down into the organization, and each employee felt that right from the start. By being flexible with Peter, he was able to retain expert talent. Twenty years later, Peter is still employed by Steve and considers his workplace a pseudo-family of support which contributes to the loyalty he has for his employer.

Debbie wasn’t so fortunate. After her fiancé committed suicide, this feisty, creative expert took a bereavement and mental health leave from her public service job. During that time, the staff and managers would make jokes about how Debbie probably “cracked”, “gone nuts” and other derogatory and insensitive remarks. I would chime in with a “This is a really traumatic event” she needs time!” How can you be so insensitive?" The response would be, “Well, Debbie has always been so ‘ emotional.’

By contrast, when Debbie returned to her job, she did not have a friendly reception at all. The sidebar chatter began, the rumours proliferated and the big question was: “Is Debbie really well enough to be at work?” Debbie loved her job, and she seemed happy to be back. However, in confidence she spoke of how fellow colleagues “were staring at her like a freak.”

Debbie relapsed. Within a month’s time, she was off sick. I was not surprised. The workplace culture was far from friendly and open to begin with and difficult enough for those who were not struggling. Debbie came back to stares and rumours instead of welcoming hugs and invitations to lunch.

What can we grasp from these experiences about supporting employees with mental illness in the workplace?

1. Mental Illness can occur suddenly as a result of a particular event like in the case of Debbie. It is a disability that can happen to anyone.

2. Employees with mental illness can be accommodated in the workplace. Flex-time schedules, reduced workload during trying periods can be instrumental in retaining talent.

3. Leadership is key. A compassionate leader sets the tone within an organization. Steve asked Peter what he required to ease the transition back to work. He was thinking ahead. Debbie’s boss was so uncomfortable and scared of saying the wrong thing that the discussion never happened. If Debbie had been given the chance to express what she had needed during the transition back to work, perhaps she may not have relapsed so quickly.

4. Back-To-Work Plans are essential. Steve’s boss had decided he would provide Peter some flexible arrangements he organized a welcoming reception for him. Peter was not seen to receive “special treatment” because of the flexible schedule offered to him, instead it was seen as a “win-win” for all due to the fact that Peter was a valuable employee. In the case of Debbie, it was business as usual for her and what she probably needed was some reassurance from her colleagues that they were delighted to have her back.

With the perceived rise of mental illness in our society, it is incumbent upon employers to foster a culture of acceptance and open communication. Flexible work schedules can benefit a vast variety of workers. Compassionate workplaces can create employee loyalty, strengthen morale and retain talent.

To learn more about how to create inclusive workplaces and diversity and customer service, please visit, #BellLetsTalk #mentalillness #disabilityetiquette #depression #workplaceinclusion

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