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Fighting stigma at work begins with leadership

The onset of COVID-19 upended our lives. For many, the attendant uncertainty has increased stress and anxiety, with 38 percent of Canadians saying that their mental wellness has declined. 

For parents who are juggling work and childcare obligations, for those who live alone and may be feeling increasingly isolated, or people who are coping with the financial threat of job loss, everyone has experienced some level of disruption. 

Valérie Cloutier, Mental Health Champion and Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor, Sodexo Canada, said that "…COVID-19 has reinforced that no one is immune to mental health problems and illnesses. With increased awareness, comes more open dialogue. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has widened the disparity for those who are already vulnerable. People with lower incomes, who are racialized, Indigenous or in sexual minorities are reporting worse mental health than those in the general population…" 

Already, one in two people will experience a mental health problem before the age of forty, and that includes people who are in the prime of their working lives. Distressingly, only one-third will seek help. Despite multiple awareness-raising campaigns we haven’t yet conquered the stigma that silences so many. According to Cloutier, Sodexo is striving to close the gap between the prevalence of mental illness and the reluctance to seek help, with an eye to eliminating stigma from their workplace.   

"Sodexo makes investing in employee wellness a priority through our employee Lifeworks program, but we want to go beyond making services available, and reach people within the walls of our workplace – whether they are virtual or not. That means empowering leaders, managers, and colleagues to feel confident in supporting the mental wellness needs of their co-workers, but it also means fostering a climate of respect and non-discrimination, where creativity and productivity can flourish,” said Cloutier. 

With this goal in mind, Sodexo has made vision a reality, in part, by championing The Working Mind (TWM) program, an evidence-based course designed to help organisations create greater awareness about mental health problems and illnesses, and to offer employees and managers skills based training to support each other – and themselves.

"It used to be that you wouldn’t dream of discussing mental illness at work, but companies like Sodexo are rewriting the narrative by opening the door to conversations at the board room table.” - Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).

Louise Bradley
Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC)

"It used to be that you wouldn’t dream of discussing mental illness at work,” affirmed Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). “But companies like Sodexo are rewriting the narrative by opening the door to conversations at the board room table. That, in turn, will spill over to the dinner table. The more employees are able to build resiliency on the job, the greater the benefit will be to our communities.” 

While the training was planned pre-pandemic, the timing was prescient because Sodexo managers and employees alike are expressing an increased desire to put the spotlight on mental health.  

"With one training session already completed, in addition to the two TWM certified Sodexo managers, ten additional cohorts will be trained between December 2020 and August 2021," said Cloutier. "This desire to participate demonstrates our common will to reduce barriers to care, because the more we manage to identify a problematic situation, the faster we can put in place the appropriate supports.” 

Some predict that COVID-19 will result in a rise in the number of mental health problems and an increase in their severity. According to a studyi conducted by Deloitte, it is estimated that emergency room visits for stress-and anxiety-related concerns will increase by one to three per cent compared to pre-pandemic rates. 

That said, Bradley pointed out that we aren’t powerless in this situation. “Resilience is a muscle we can build. Mental health promotion is something we can do consciously, through training like The Working Mind, to help offset some of these startling statistics. Just as we have projections of what may happen if we don’t change behaviour to flatten the curve of the virus, we can also work toward subduing a mental illness echo pandemic by taking action and promoting healthy coping mechanisms.” 

"Mental and physical health go hand in hand. Any problem, whether it arises at home or at work, will affect all spheres of our lives.” - Valérie Cloutier, Mental Health Champion and Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor, Sodexo Canada

Valérie Cloutier
Valérie Cloutier, Mental Health Champion and Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor

Cloutier agreed. "Mental and physical health go hand in hand. Any problem, whether it arises at home or at work, will affect all spheres of our lives. There are things we can do individually, and there are things we have a duty to do within our organisation, to try to prevent our mental health from worsening.” 

Sodexo is already thinking of raising the bar even higher, with plans to give employees the opportunity to share their mental health testimonials. 

"The goal is to change perceptions. It’s perfectly normal to have ups and downs and to experience more difficult times than others. Acknowledging that I am going through a period of greater mental fragility, and talking about it without fear of being judged, is already a great step forward for stamping out stigma, and, in so doing inspiring others to seek for help,” concluded Cloutier.

December 04, 2020

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