Not Myself Today @ Work

downloadTomorrow – June 7 – is Not Myself Today @ Work, the culmination of a Partners for Mental Health campaign designed to bring attention to issues around mental health in the workplace.

I’m fortunate to work for a progressive organization that sees the value in educating our staff about these issues, and one that has also supported the cause financially. I’m proud to work there. And the interest my colleagues have demonstrated in the campaign gives one some modicum of optimism. Perhaps small steps like these will make it a bit easier for us to have discussions about issues like this with those people we spend the most time with.

I also know people that have tried to get their workplaces to participate in the campaign, but were unable to do so. It’s not like it required a significant financial contribution or the commitment of work time by those volunteering for the campaign. In that sense I feel that we’ve all failed in that we still haven’t been able to convey the significance of the issue at hand or the impact that mental health issues have on employees on a daily basis. In this sense the situation is getting worse instead of better.

So tomorrow my colleagues and I will wear our campaign buttons and have a bit of fun displaying our “moods” to one another. But hopefully we’ll think just a little bit about the depth of feeling and emotion that often lies underneath, yet is all too rarely spoken of.

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Not Myself Today at Work

To say that the numbers are staggering is to understate the obvious.  It has been somewhat common knowledge over the last few years that depression was rapidly overtaking every other illness as the number one cause of workplace absenteeism.  But it’s hard to wrap your mind around statistics like these. Some 22 percent of workers are affected by mental illness at some point in their lives.

It goes on and on. Half a million Canadians miss work each day because of mental health issues.  The overall economic cost of mental illness is estimated to be $51 billion annually.  One out of every three workplace disability claims are related to mental illness.

Those are the numbers.  And what have we done over the last several years to address what is obviously a growing problem to Canadian productivity and to our economy?  What have we done to help workers get the tools and assistance they need to be healthy?  I don’t know if we’ve done much of anything, really.

Of course, some workplaces have introduced measures to help better find that elusive work-life balance.  Flex time, on-site gyms, incentives to exercise, all of these are admirable.  But it’s glaringly obvious that nothing short of a country-wide, concerted effort is needed to help us begin to navigate our way out of this mess. One-offs aren’t going to be enough to meet the challenge.

Well, now someone’s taking the initiative and trying to begin the dialogue that needs to take place at work – between colleagues, between workers and management, in human resources departments.  Partners for Mental Health is about to introduce a new campaign aimed at this very issue.

Not Myself Today was created to proactively deal with mental health.  And now it is taking the campaign into the workplace.  The Not Myself Today at Work campaign (www.notmyselftodayatwork.ca) will encourage hundreds of Canadian companies to take part and to send the public message that their organizations place a priority on employee mental health.

On May 9th, the campaign launches with a website where employees can get more information about mental illness and share their stories and ideas for change.  Buttons, posters and other promotional tools will be distributed at special events to get attention.  And this will culminate on June 6thNot Myself Day @ Work.

June 6th will be a day when we can all help to call attention to mental health in a major way.  Employees can “wear” their moods that day, events will be organized, funds will be raised, talks will be held.  Not Myself Day @ Work toolkits will be distributed to help individuals organize events in their own workplaces.

So do three things:  demonstrate your workplace’s commitment to mental health by supporting the Not Myself Today campaign starting May 9th.  Get your employees to participate in Not Myself Day at Work on June 6.  And step up as a contributor and direct funding towards helping as many Canadians as possible.

Isn’t there some saying about a happy and healthy worker being a productive worker?  Let’s all do our small part to help make this a reality.

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Sadness

ImageThe holiday season is a tough time for the hardiest of souls.  For those facing a mood or anxiety disorder, the challenges it brings can make it nothing short of overwhelming at times.  It’s full of expectations and obligations and commitments – things some of us might normally go out of our way to avoid.

But avoidance isn’t possible, not in any real sense.  And it certainly doesn’t help anything, although from personal experience I can reference at least one psychiatrist who suggests that it works because it’s effective in the short term. 

These expectations and obligations normally focus around family and those close to us.  People that we would otherwise engage with normally.  But on our own terms.  I think that’s what makes it so difficult – that we have much less control over how things unfold.  The illusion of that control, anyway, but that’s what really matters.

As much as we all love family, there really is too much of a good thing.  Unfortunately, they don’t always bring out the best in us.  Or perhaps we allow our less-than-perfect selves to emerge more easily in their company.  And no matter how much you let your guard down, there is only so much one can endure.

And if you’re an introvert, well, then there are that many more anxieties to focus on.  The forced conviviality and holiday “cheer.”  The office parties and gift exchanges, et al.  The awkward replies to the “What does your family do over the holidays?” and such. 

Of course, the converse of this might actually be worse – being on your own for the holidays.  Left to your own devices.  Although some of us certainly prefer this, on some level we either long for or think that we ought to long for the comradeship of those who mean the most to us.  We feel that we’re missing something, or shortchanging ourselves.  We feel “obligated” to join in. 

The new year is also fast approaching.  And even if you don’t particularly care for or believe in resolutions, there’s something about the turning of the page on the calendar that not only makes one sometimes hopeful for the new year yet to unfold, but also reflective about the one that’s almost over.  And of course those aren’t always happy thoughts, not when your mind is most comfortable focusing on all the ways one could have been a better person, a better colleague, a better friend. 

As I said, I think this time of year is tough for everyone.  It’s like the entire year all compressed into one burst of a few weeks.  All the magic and hopefulness mixed with all the dread and anxiety and sadness.  It can be too much.

So while we’re supposed to be focused on others right now, it’s even more important than normal to take care of ourselves.  Don’t wallow in the guilt; don’t let the sadness take over.  Give yourself a break.  Have a glass of wine and enjoy the moment.  You deserve it.  And a new year is right around the corner…

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Depression in the Workplace

Yet another study has been released that indicates that depression is the primary sick-leave issue faced in the workplace.  This is not recent news; “workplace” depression has been identified as the soon-to-be primary cause of employee sick time for at least a few years now. Image

And one cannot argue with the numbers – the just-released Ipsos-Reid poll confirmed that some 22 percent of Canadian workers are experiencing depression.  An April 2012 report by the Mental Health Commission demonstrated that mental health problems account for 47 percent of all approved disability claims in the Canadian civil service – nearly double the percentage of 20 years earlier.

Far be it from me to question the numbers.  Truth be told, I have myself taken “stress leave” as a result of mental health issues.  So I have reason to believe that they’re accurate. 

That same report referenced above claimed that in 2010, mental health problems accounted for close to a third of short- and long-term disability claims.  And this percentage is only continuing to increase. 

It’s been estimated that between compensation to sick workers and lost productivity, mental issues cost the Canadian economy about $50 billion annually.  That is not a typo.  And yes, it is an astronomical number. 

So I have no doubt that mental issues are prevalent throughout society, and they are not at all being sufficiently addressed, and workplaces and management are not equipped to deal with it, et cetera.  That goes without saying. 

As Dr. Karen Cohen, CEO of the Canadian Psychological Association, has just commented in response to the most recent Ipsos-Reid findings, while “there’s no clinical diagnosis of workplace depression,” office life does in fact create its own unique stresses.

I have a bit of an issue with the term “workplace depression” more than anything else, as you might have already surmised.  I don’t know of an individual I’ve ever worked with, and neither have I ever heard anecdotally of anyone who came to work “happy,” only to become “depressed,” and then to become “happy” again after they left for home.  Do some people’s jobs stress them out?  Yes they do.  Does workplace stress exacerbate depression specifically and mental health in general?  Almost certainly.

But depression is depression is depression.  It’s very important that we seem to be more able to talk about depression in the workplace than ever before, and whatever tools that can help management address this problem should be provided.  But depression isn’t a 9-to-5 problem.  And it isn’t uniquely a workplace problem. 

My concern is that we are going to isolate “workplace depression” as some type of unique illness and – although I agree that any attention paid to depression is to be valued and is worth something in and of itself – that we will thereby give short shrift the larger problem of depression and it’s role in all aspects of life.  When people are at home, when they’re at play, and when they’re at work. 

Some medical practitioners are responding to the Ipsos-Reid study by suggesting that they don’t believe that employers should shoulder the full burden of improving mental health in the workplace.  And they’re right – they shouldn’t.  But we should endeavour to provide them with whatever assistance we can to help them deal with this increasingly prevalent scourge. 

It’s been demonstrated that the incidence of depression hasn’t really changed over the years, but maybe that some of the stigma has decreased, and therefore maybe people are more willing to talk about it.  And I think that’s true.  That’s been my experience.  I don’t know anyone that I work closely with that hasn’t been affected directly or indirectly by depression and the devastating toll that it takes on individuals and on society.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s great that we’re more able to talk about depression, and if that’s happening in the workplace then that’s a great thing.  But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that there is some unique phenomenon of “workplace depression” that has only recently been discovered.  It’s depression, plain and simple.  And it permeates all dimensions of people’s lives. 

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That Time of Year

ImageI almost feel guilty saying it.  And it feels kind of heretical.  In a part of the world where we experience winter or something akin to it about eight months of the year, it’s almost unacceptable to state out loud that one is looking forward to anything other than the continuation of a long, hot summer.

As much as I love golfing, and being out on a patio having a drink, and being in shorts and a t-shirt all the time, I find something very reassuring about the return of fall.  The days are still pleasant, it cools off at night, and the colours of the trees begin to change.  And the sweaters and the heavier clothes come out for those of us that care about that kind of thing.  But there are two things I don’t like about it:  it presages the return of winter, and the days get shorter – and darker.

I don’t know if most people notice the dramatic reduction in daylight that happens so gradually over the summer.  But by November – at least here in the middle of the continent – it’s pretty much dark when you get up in the morning and dark when you get home from work at night.  And if your instinct wasn’t to hibernate during the summer, even the hardiest of people feel the temptation to stay in and keep warm.

I know that most people don’t particularly like all the darkness, but I also know that it doesn’t affect most on anything approaching a clinical level.  But for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or those on the continuum of some form of this, fall and winter become much more dangerous times.

People that suffer from anxiety and depression have a tendency to withdraw from or avoid social situations in general.  But in winter it becomes too convenient, and the constant darkness makes it so much easier to justify a night in.  But this change in daylight can mean a world of difference for those already doing their best to cope with emotional or mood challenges of any kind.

I know personally that it can be a real battle to do what seems to run counter to what you really want.  But as fall unfolds and leads to winter, it really is imperative to make yourself get out of the house; to force yourself to get that exercise; to remain engaged and active with the broader world out there.

If you haven’t tried light therapy yet, do so.  Lightboxes can be wonderful things, and their positive effect on mood has been scientifically demonstrated.  It doesn’t take much effort to sit beside a light for an hour a day, and they aren’t particularly expensive.  Do yourself a favour and make this time of year that much easier to deal with.  You deserve it.

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October 1, 2012 · 7:52 pm

I don’t remember ever thinking that I had a “mental illness.”  With the gift of hindsight, of course it’s easier to pinpoint times where maybe things started to go astray.  But nobody ever wants to label themselves in that way, to have to wake up every morning and think about “mentally ill” as part of their identity.  They really don’t.

I grew up thinking I was “normal,” whatever that is.  And for the most part, I think I was.  But later in adolescence as I was finishing high school and preparing to enter university I started having panic attacks.  Of course I really had no idea what they were (or why I should start having them), and if I did have some basic idea then they were certainly something that didn’t affect people like me.  That happened to really sick people.

But anxiety (like a lot of things) tends to get worse if left unattended, especially if you give in to its increasing demands.  And where maybe you started off being anxious about that high school trip to Europe, a year later you’re anxious and panicking about that university seminar that you have to be an active participant in; about the idea of “losing it” in public; about the prospect of being anywhere but at home after nightfall.

If I could do it all over, of course I’d do my best to meet the anxiety head on.  I realize that the only way to overcome it is to become familiar with it, to feel it and to let it inhabit you without letting it become all-consuming.  But 25 years ago I had no idea.  I just knew that it was harder and harder to get to sleep each and every night, and that it would get worse and worse with each passing day.  I remember not being able to sleep until around 2 or 3 am one night when I finally gave in – it was time to get professional help.  I didn’t have the energy to fight it anymore.

I’ve never been hospitalized or institutionalized, and I don’t pretend to speak for those who have.  But I understand how one can end up in that very dark place.  I flirt with it myself occasionally. And with some help from anxiolytics and antidepressants (not to mention therapy) over the years, I’ve learned to more or less manage my anxiety.  I know that it’s part of me and it probably always will be.  But it doesn’t define who I am.  But every day is a new challenge, and you can go from being in a very happy place to staring into the abyss in a frightfully short time.

For many years after my diagnosis I kept all of this to myself – took that pill when nobody was around me at university; ducked into the washroom to try to regain control of my emotions.  But with getting older you start to realize that your experience is never truly “unique,” except maybe for some of the particular circumstances.  A lot of the people that you work and interact with every day are fighting some surprisingly similar battles.

It would be easier – but certainly not easy – to be able to talk about these things in the open and without fear of judgment.  To not feel that because you don’t have a quantitatively diagnosable disease that you aren’t really sick; that what you really need to do is suck it up and “get over it.”  To know that there are so many others out there that understand what you’re going through.

And that’s why I’ve become a Community Correspondent with Partners for Mental Health (www.PartnersforMH.ca).  If I can share my story, so can others.  And education about mental illness and what it means can only help to lift the stigma that surrounds it.

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September 19, 2012 · 7:10 pm

The Criteria

What makes one qualified to talk about mental health?  Do you need to be a Doctor, a practitioner of some sort, maybe one who’s been institutionalized at some point?  I kind of feel that way – since I’m none of those then my experience really doesn’t rate and I don’t have the authority to speak to the issue.

But that’s a lot of nonsense, really.  We all have our issues, our challenges, our weak spots.  Just because I haven’t been hospitalized doesn’t mean I haven’t had encounters with mental illness.  Anxiety and depression are increasingly prevalent in society.  And they really can be debilitating.  Depression will be the number one cause of sick leave in the workplace very soon.  Anything we can learn about it is useful.  And all of us with a voice need to let it be heard. Whether anyone’s listening or not.

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