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Mental Health Awareness: ‘How are you?’

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A woman comforts another woman


In any given week, half a million Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. And workplaces themselves appear to be one of the detriments to the mental health of Canadians.

“One-quarter of [our survey] respondents say their mental health struggles are getting worse,” according to a Pollara Strategic Insight study conducted in February 2022. Many of those who indicated high self-rated levels of anxiety and depression also showed symptoms of moderate to severe psychological distress (45% of all respondents).

At the same time, Imagine Canada described in its Fall 2022 report that working conditions in the nonprofit and charitable sector are worse than the Canadian average. Low-wage, low-benefit, short-term contract jobs are prevalent due to short-term, project-based funding. The average annual salary for those working in community nonprofits is $38,716, compared to $57,137 in the economy overall. The nonprofit sector employs approximately 2.7 million people.

The Imagine Canada study goes on to say that three quarters of the nonprofit work force are women and that nearly half of nonprofit workers are immigrants or refuges, and that a racial and gender pay gap in the sector exists among this group. According to a 2020 Statistics Canada Study, woman and racialized minorities are already experiencing poorer mental health outcomes.

“Canadian employers have legal obligations to protect the health and safety of their employees. But feeling safe in the workplace doesn’t just mean avoiding physical dangers. A productive workforce with a strong workplace culture involves employees who feel psychologically safe as well,” the Canadian HR Report, wrote in 2021.  

And creating a psychologically safe environment is beginning to bubble up alongside the responsibilities of ensuring physical safety.

“Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback,” according to the Centre for Creative Leadership. 

Leah Eustace, ACFRE, is a long-time charitable sector leader and mental health advocate.

“Psychological safety at work is one idea that’s gaining some traction in the sector. It’s about people feeling comfortable at work,” she says. “But, as many people can relate to, the workplace isn’t necessarily a place of safety. There might be policy on paper about employees having their voices heard, but the reality is different. One woman I know left the workforce for two years after the reception she got for speaking up. Will she ever speak up again? Probably not.”

“Some people see mental health wellness as something that happens outside the workplace,” says AFP Canada board member, Aaron Sanderson, CFRE, ACFRE, SVP, advancement and chief development officer at Kids Help Phone. “But you can’t have any kind of safety in the workplace if you can’t consider how you feel. Psychological safety in the workplace is a critical piece of overall safety in the workplace.”

Blame for lack of psychological safety in the nonprofit workplace is often laid at the feet of poor funding. The Imagine Canada report puts the blame squarely on the underfunding of some charities, especially community-based charities.  

Yet, leadership also plays a vital function. 

“What happens if psychological safety or mental health wellness is simply added to my plate as a development leader? What time am I making available to my team in terms of the time they need?” asks Sanderson. “The signal that sends is that it’s not important, rather than the strong signal sent by having someone designated—or partly designated—to do that. Naming the function is itself a signal that the organization sees the issue as a safety issue.” 

“Fundraisers are often incredibly giving, empathetic and diligent professionals,” says Krista Slade, national chief philanthropy and partnerships officer for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), “but we are also often working in high-stress situations with lofty targets which can take a toll on our mental health. We often struggle with setting boundaries and neglect self-care. Taking care of yourself is not just some trendy buzzword—it's about nourishing your soul and recharging your batteries.”

Mental health accommodations are also a part of mitigating workplace anxiety and stress, says Eustace. 

“More employers are recognizing the importance of providing accommodations, and not only because they need to comply with the law,” says Slade. 

“They are also learning how to support their team's mental health and promote open conversations. They're realizing that there's no one-size-fits-all solution and are empowering employees to request accommodations that work best for them. The challenging news? It’s not always easy figuring out how to provide accommodations in a fair, equitable and inclusive way. But help is available. CMHAs across the country are places that offers workplace mental health support and training for employers and employees.”

“Mental health accommodation is definitely an important part of the language to discuss psychological safety,” says Sanderson. “If you’re talking about mental health regularly, then it’s easier to manage around it. At its most basic level, it’s asking people how they are doing, and really meaning it. This happened during the pandemic. When people asked, ‘how are you?’, we were given the room to answer and talk about that. If we talk about how we are, it becomes part of the conversation.”

“Every organization needs to be doing more to encourage healthier workplaces, but there are complex considerations in the nonprofit sector, especially related to burnout, equity, and power imbalances,” says Slade. “There are five concrete actions organizations can take to make employee mental health a priority.”  

  1. Cover mental health services in benefit plans. And more than the bare minimum. Be generous with amounts and deductibles. 
  2. Make it normal for teams to take time off for mental health reasons. 
  3. It starts at the top. Leadership can model work-life balance by taking their vacations. 
  4. Work to change the work culture by challenging stigma of mental illness wherever they see it. This can mean encouraging employees to use sensitive and supportive language when speaking to and about each other. Language like that’s just crazy or that’s an insane challenge, can be hurtful.   
  5. Listen supportively when someone on our team shares a concern. 

“These five steps make sense in all our relationships,” Slade adds, “and not only at work. We as individuals, and we as a sector, can make our organizations and our teams safer and healthier. It’s a matter of knowing the steps to take and having the heart and the determination to take them. This is a defining challenge of our time—in the workplace and outside it.”

If you are looking for resources on how to take care of your mental health in the workplace, see resources below: 

If you are interested in improving mental health supports in your workplace, see resources below: 

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