Disclosure in the Workplace
Network, Winter 2004
Prior to her position as Director of Mental Health Works, Mary Ann Baynton, MSW, had her own business running a brokerage office. Mental Health Works is an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario. Resources include workshops aimed at helping managers and employers develop strategies to effectively address mental illness in the workplace. In addition, workshops for employees help set the stage for a new understanding and a new way to talk about mental health in the workplace. Booklets, posters, and other helpful publications and services are available on-line, under Training and Tools, atwww.mentalhealthworks.ca.
As an employer with no training in dealing with mental health issues, what was your initial reaction to employees who came to you with problems that could ultimately affect the profitability of your business?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: When I was running my own brokerage firm I had three employees who approached me over a period of time to tell me that they had been diagnosed with a mental illness. My philosophy then, and now, is that everyone is unique. Everyone has particular strengths and weaknesses and as an employer you have to work with that. In this case I had eight employees. One of them was diagnosed as bipolar, one with panic disorder and one with depression.
When you hired them were you aware that they had a mental illness?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: No, and I had no particular training as to how as management I should deal with this. Now I have an MSW and have done a lot of work in this field, but at that time I knew little about mental illness.
How long had they been working for you before they came to discuss this with you?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: I think it was probably a year. Prior to that I attributed any unusual behaviour to just being part of their personality. They each had unique characteristics, but when they were diagnosed they came to me and we were able to discuss it openly. I think that made a big difference because it removed a lot of the stress involved when you try to hide something like this from an employer and co-workers. From my point of view these were competent, valuable employees who in spite of having a mental illness were able to perform the essential tasks of their job in a way that made the business profitable. I certainly did not want to have to lose them simply to hire someone with less experience who did not have a mental illness. These were people who happened to be going through a period where they were experiencing a mental illness. Most of the time there was no effect on job performance, and when there was, it was very minor.
Did you restructure their positions in any way to accommodate their illness?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: Yes, we were able to be flexible. For instance the employee who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder found that there were certain things she could do to ward off depression and part of that was greater interaction with people. She found that too much time spent on tasks such as complex paperwork isolated her and would get her down. On the other hand, the employee with panic disorder found that the reverse was true. Too much interaction with people could sometimes trigger panic attacks. She was nervous about being with a client and having a panic attack and was concerned about how that would reflect on her and on the business. By considering both employees’ needs, we saw that if the two traded off certain tasks – more complex paperwork for more client contact – both employees reduced their stress and increased productivity. Both of these people were knowledge-able and valuable workers and it was to my benefit to try and accommodate them. Talking openly to my employees not only took the pressure off them, it also took the pressure off me, because they were able to tell me what would work for them. I didn’t have to do handstands to accommodate them, we simply sat down and discussed what they needed.
Do you think there is a tendency to pressure someone with a mental illness to feel that they have to be better at their job than someone who does not have a mental illness? A little like women felt when they were trying to get past that glass ceiling — that they had to be perceived to be doing the job better than a man could?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: I think that can be true. The people who worked for me were very dedicated and conscientious individuals before they were diagnosed with a mental illness, but I think it’s true that many people with a mental illness put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform because it’s important to them to overcome the stigma.
You mentioned that one of your employees was nervous that she might have a panic attack while with a client. Did this ever happen and if so how did she handle it?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: I think it did happen, but she was able to stay composed enough to bring the appointment to a close and tell them that she would get back to them so the client was never aware of there being a problem. I think knowing that she had the support of everyone in the office made it that much easier for my employee to handle it.
Was having your own business and dealing with these situations the catalyst for you to now work in this area?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: I don’t know if there is such a direct correlation as that. As I said before, my philosophy has always been that people are unique and have unique strengths and weaknesses that you have to work with. I can’t say that I even thought of these employees as having a mental illness. They were people who worked for me who, among other things, were having to deal with certain issues. And that’s true of everyone. We all have things in our life that we have to deal with at one time or another.
In your role as Director of Mental Health Works, is that how you encourage managers to look at this? That nobody comes into the workplace issue-free — we all bring baggage with us?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: Exactly. The employees I am speaking about had a diagnosable mental illness, but every other employee in my business also required certain accommodations in order to work to the best of their ability. People needed time off to deal with sick parents or children. Others needed a certain type of chair or keyboard for back and neck problems. Everyone needs accommodation if we are to maximize their potential in the workplace. This whole idea of mental health in the workplace is not a separate issue, or at least it shouldn’t be a separate issue. If we want everyone to be their best, and give their best, then as managers we have to discover what will enable them to do that and make the necessary accommodations. These can be complex issues, but they often have clear solutions.
What are the goals of the Mental Health Works program?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: What we are trying to do is reduce the stress level for managers who are sometimes so paralysed by fear of what the consequences of their actions may be that they do nothing. Managers are afraid of offending the employee; they are afraid of being charged with discrimination if they bring up the question of mental illness; and they are afraid of not meeting the bottom line. The big question is, “What happens if this person fails to perform?” We want to go to the managers and the supervisors and say, “Look, we can help you deal with this in a way that makes it easier for you. A way that helps you retain your bottom line and also in a way that will make your employees feel better about their jobs.”
Isn’t this a continuation of what we have seen for some years now in the workplace? Contract work, part-time work, flexible hours, the freedom to work from home?
MARY ANN BAYNTON: Absolutely. We need to accommodate everybody to maximize their potential. And companies do that by finding out what is standing in the way of an employee doing the job they need done and then removing those barriers without, in the terms of legislation, ‘undue hardship’ to the corporation. Mental Health Works can show an employer, a manager, how to achieve that.
Ten years ago Tom Regehr was living on the streets of Toronto. Just another homeless guy who’d given up on himself, his alcohol addiction and depression. Coming from a traditional middle class, white family, Tom felt he had a privileged childhood. Although there wasn’t that much money, he never went hungry. But by the time he was ten years of age, his mother was beginning her fight with depression, which led to alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, suicide attempts and finally to her leaving the family home.
Those years of trauma put Tom on the path to his own battle with mental health and addiction issues, and to the emotional scars he still carries. After several years of meeting with addiction counsellors, Tom has now started his own weekly self-help group called C.A.S.T., Clean And Sober Thinking (http://cast.stn.net), and also meets with a therapist who is helping him to work on emotional healing.
A big proponent of disclosure, Tom believes that for his own personal growth he has to have that openness with an employer. “If I feel I am keeping secrets, if I have to have two agendas running in my head, I can’t deal with it. That’s the road to emotional catastrophe for me,” explains Tom. His experiences in job interview situations have mostly been positive. “You always hope for understanding,” said Tom. “I don’t need to be coddled, that’s not why I disclose this information about myself. I’m just hoping for understanding and for help. With coaching from my therapist I have been able to go out and get a regular job and reintegrate, which was very difficult for me. I had a huge fear reaction about fitting in, and my therapist helped me to deal with that. When I first started working I literally had to run out of the building a couple of times. But I had a department manager who knew my story and was willing to help me to adapt to the working environment. Most people when you disclose are afraid – not of you, but because they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what’s expected of them. When you tell them what your needs are, they feel more comfortable, and then they get enthusiastic about helping you.
“I read in the Mental Health Works brochure that your employer has to know what your personal goals are. My personal goal was to be able to stay in the work area and deal with my fear without running out of the building. With help I managed that, and I think I did a good job. Now I’m ready for more challenges.”
Resources for dealing with mental health in the workplace:
- Mental Health Works
- Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health
- National Institute of Disability Management and Research
- Canadian Council for Rehabilitation and Work
« Return to Network, Winter 2004 – Contents