The enlightened employer
By Shelby Morton
Leslie Carmichael, director of people, engagement and culture at the Ontario Hospital
Association, recalls an employee who, due to stress and anxiety, took a seven-week leave of absence.
When the employee returned, it was with a certain requirement.
“She needed to carry a pillow with her around the office and to meetings for a sense of comfort,”
Carmichael said she didn’t think twice about allowing this.
“Nobody frowned upon that,” she said. “It worked for her while she was away, so it was included
in her return to work plan.”
Carmichael said her job is to foster internal engagement within the OHA and maintaining her
staff’s mental health is a huge part of that.
“Dealing with mental health is a delicate line to walk and I don’t take it lightly,” she said. “I can’t
visualize what [the employee] is going through but I’ll do my best to sympathize.”
In the last two years, OHA staff, including Carmichael, has been trained and certified in mental
health first aid.
“Is a pain in the chest a heart attack, or is it anxiety?” she said. “Ok, we’re dealing with
depression or suicidal thoughts. We don’t want to put our supervisors in a position where they don’t know how to deal with such things.”
Mary Ann Baynton, a workplace relations specialist and founder of workplace mental health
social enterprise Mindful Employer Canada, said it’s important that employers have practical strategies
for the workplace.
“I’ve watched managers burn out by trying to help an employee with a mental health issue,” she
said. “If [an organization like Mindful Employer] can make it easier on them, and teach them how to do the work that I myself can do, then it’s much more cost effective.”
Lauren Hill, senior manager of the IT department at Scotiabank, said mental well-being should be a priority to all employers.
“It’s important to know that you can come to work and be appreciated for your effort and
abilities regardless of what’s going on in your personal life,” she said.
Scotiabank is a sponsor of the Not Myself Today campaign, a workplace mental health initiative
launched by Partners for Mental Health. It provides toolkits that include activities, online resources, and materials to help employers properly address mental health.
Jeff Moat, president of Partners for Mental Health, said the campaign’s goal is to eliminate the
stigma surrounding mental illness.
“Not feeling like yourself today? Well, that’s OK,” he said. “It’s about recognizing that we all go
through a gamut of emotions and it’s completely normal to feel these feelings.”
Hill said Scotiabank, with Not Myself Today, provides managers with support when dealing with
employee mental health, including promoting inclusive language, providing resources for counseling and simply asking how an employee is doing.
“I’ll even tell them something personal about myself, that way they feel comfortable talking to
me about whatever they need to,” she said.
Carmichael’s department utilizes Not Myself Today’s toolkit, including distributing mood
buttons to employees.
“It’s all about being open. If the button you’ve got isn’t fitting your mood, ask a co-worker to
swap,” she said. “Feeling happy today? Well, grab a happy button.”
Moat said mood buttons build empathy, and connect employees to each other and their emotions.
“We’re mindful of this ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ mentality surrounding mental illness,” he
said. “If you feel off, you should pay attention to it—it’s your mental health calling.”
anti-stigma campaign. The campaign offers employers and employees a small blue elephant to place in
their work area to demonstrate that the workplace is a safe place to talk about mental illness without fear
“As cute as it is, it wasn’t given because it’s a cute blue elephant, it’s there to start a
conversation,” she said. “If you want to talk, put it on your desk.”
Debbie Turner, program manager at Mood Disorders Society of Canada, said the campaign also
offers customizable posters with phone numbers and information about mental health.
“Too often employees think they’ll be thought less of because of a mental illness,” she said. “By
showcasing the elephant and the posters, it’s the employer’s way of saying that this is an issue they care about."
Carmichael said cultivating a team environment is key to a healthy workplace. She provides
weekly mental health-related emails, fitness incentives, team-building exercises (including a recent
dragon boat race), as well as anti-stigma “lunch and learns.”
“When my employees are well, I know they’re operating at their best and engaged in their work,”
Baynton said it’s important to show that a person can manage a health condition while
contributing to the workplace.
“Stigma exists when we think that a person with a mental illness cannot function or be
productive,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a liability.”
Carmichael said she is proud of the OHA’s progress.
“The more we talk about it, the more we can significantly reduce the stigma,” she said. “It’s
ultimately about understanding that mental illness does not define a person.”