Earlier this month a small Nova Scotia town was devastated when a Canadian soldier presumably killed his wife, daughter and mother before turning a gun on himself. Unimaginable! How does a family recover from this? As a parent, I cannot fathom the state of mind someone must have to kill their own child, let alone wife and mother. The worst part is he had asked for help. His PTSD was documented and he had sought help just days before the incident. He had been vocal on social media about his behaviour and the disease. So, how did this happen?
Hearing the news I began to reflect on my experience with mental illness in the workplace. Several years ago I was an HR Manager for an organization that saw this not once, but twice. I will never forget when I got the call. I had been up early for my morning workout. My Blackberry rang at 5:30 am and I almost didn’t answer it because I assumed it was a call centre. For some reason I jumped off the treadmill and answered the phone. It was an employee at one of our branch locations. He sounded panicked, relieved that he had been able to contact me, and exhausted all at the same time. I knew instantly something terrible had happened. By the end of the conversation I was shaking and I had to think quickly.
We had two employees who had recently separated after 20 years of marriage. While they continued to work together, the wife had recently moved into an apartment. The day before I got the call she hadn’t shown up to work and the husband had called in sick. An employee went to check on her but there was no answer. That night they started to learn the details about an incident at her apartment – murder suicide. The lives of our employees, their families, and all their friends would never be the same.
As I sat on that workout bench with sweat still running down my cheek, I was stunned and for the first time in my career I had no idea what to do. Unfortunately, the tools and processes I learned during the following days would be used again just a few years later.
This time I had just arrived to work when I learned about the passing of one of our managers. I knew that he had suffered from depression in the past but I had seen him just weeks before and he seemed to be doing so well. I was pregnant and his grandson had just been born. He gushed as we scrolled through pictures on his phone. I remember thinking to myself “Wow, I have never seen him so happy”. I would never have imagined that would be the last time I saw him.
How Can Employers Help?
To be clear, you may not be able to prevent this from happening, but you can help. While movements like “Let’s Talk” and “Ride Don’t Hide” are sheading a light on mental illness, many employers haven’t done enough to support their employees and eliminate the stigma in the workplace. Here are some steps to take:
Provide training for all Managers and employees about mental illness, why it happens, what are the symptoms and how they impact people’s lives. This should be more than a lunch and learn. It needs to be a long term program that consists of many different approaches – in person training, webinars, newsletters, coaching, etc. This will not only showcase the signs, but also open a dialogue between Managers and employees. Everyone needs to be comfortable talking about mental illness and education is the key.
Be sure to develop a policy that outlines a process for Managers and employees to follow if they suspect a mental illness issue. While you are looking at your policies, ensure all current policies, such as sick time and leave of absence, consider and support mental health initiatives. You will want to have an official roll out and really promote the policy. Visual material such as posters or web links are great ways to keep it top of mind.
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a fairly economical benefit that provides professional counselling and support groups for those with mental illness and their family members. Payroll providers often offer this service at a reasonable price, so if you outsource your payroll, that’s a good place to start. Also, distributing information on government funded programs, community resources, and other professional services/groups can be very helpful. Lastly, listen to what your employees are saying. Give them your undivided attention and don’t be afraid to act if something seems off.
As an employer, you are one cog in the community support wheel. We may not always be able to prevent these tragic situations but you do need to be able to sleep at night when you ask yourself “Was there anything more I could have done?”
Sarah Mullins is the founder of uptreeHR, a Halifax based human resource consulting firm that is passionate about helping business owners manage their people, set clear expectations and increase performance. We truly believe you can treat your employees well, create an amazing culture and not break the bank.
To book a complimentary 30 minute consult with Sarah, click here.
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