Mental Health in the Workplace

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Depressed

Don’t worry, be happy.

The quote from the popular little ditty by Bobby McFerrin yields sage advice, one that Jean Paul Gravel holds at the core of his practice when working one-on-one with individuals, or with a company’s entire executive bunch, in pursuit of mental wellness.

“People are so caught up in trying to change their environment in order to be happy and that’s completely flawed, it’s impossible. You can’t change your environment in order to be happy. You have to choose to be happy, then your environment changes,” says Gravel.

The Montreal native spends his time working with individuals afflicted with mental health problems, such as depression, stress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. He holds no official title, his business card bearing only his French moniker. Nor do any post-secondary credentials adorn the walls of his small minimalistic office. The room houses a table propped against a blanched wall and four ivory leather cushioned chairs. Large windows take up one side providing a view of the bustling business district while letting in a significant amount of light. The natural light and alabaster scheme do well to create an uplifting ambiance. The majority would deem Gravel unfit to handle psychological problems, but Gravel has been flown around the globe to do the work that he does, taking on whole corporations.

Gravel is the founder of ThroughConversation, a system he designed to help guide individuals to “break through limiting beliefs.” Irrespective of the common psychological help, like therapy or counselling sessions, Gravel works to get to the core of an individual’s unhappiness over the course of three months. Length of time varies for corporate workshops, but typically two weeks.

Mental health was once a term most prevalent in the self-help section of the now diminishing aisles of Chapters, tossed in with other words of the same resonance, like aromatherapy or holistic. This, once alternative, field has amassed a faithful following, but mental health didn’t always have the science or research behind it to lift it from its micro status up to a macro platform.

When a national tech company like Bell Canada drops $50 million on a national program, Bell Let’s Talk, in support of mental health, then you begin to wonder. Mental Health problems do affect a company’s bottom line, which, in turn, affects the economy. The Mental Health Commission of Canada reported an annual six billion dollar loss for Canadian businesses due to lowered productivity caused by mental health problems. And mental health problems and illnesses are rated as one of the top three drivers of short and long-term disability claims by more than 80 per cent of Canadian employers.

Bell Canada partnered with Morneau Shapell, a national consulting agency, in 2010 to create and help implement mental health training programs into Canadian businesses. They also launched earlier this year, in collaboration with Queen’s University, a workplace mental health training certificate program that teaches leadership skills in managing performance and promoting a mentally healthy workplace. A number of businesses also extend their own brand of mental health programs, such as Sun Life Financial, Great West Life Assurance Company (created the Great West Life Centre for Mental Illness in the Workplace) and Manulife (the National Development Sponsor of the Mental Health at Work Award from Excellence Canada).

Gravel’s brand of a mental health training program in the workplace includes a personal touch. He meets directly with a company’s management team and executives because he believes that a mentally healthy workplace begins at the top.

“I love my one-on-ones. But then they got me in for corporate training, all these executives at a huge hotel. By the end I think 60 or 70 per cent of the people were crying, tears of love. I was in a restaurant in the same resort two days later eating there and I had two people come up to me, the servers, and say, ‘excuse me sir, you are the man that did the conference? We want to thank you.’ I’m like, ‘but you weren’t in it.’ ‘They treat us with respect now. They listen to us, they’re not yelling at us.’ Then I got it that I want to do more workshops.”

On this mid-summer morning the air is gentle, not yet succumb to the easterly sun slowly making its way overhead. Gravel is in his office, taking care of last minute matters before his flight to Helsinki, where he will conduct a corporate workshop.

“What I provide is the experience that provides them to shift perspectives. See when you shift your perspective, you’re happy. What people need to do, in order to change their environment, is look at themselves and work on themselves in order to be happy. That’s what I provide. It’s the same thing in the workplace, it’s the same thing in your personal life. People come to me with this many issues and want me to work on those issues. . .We have conversations that lead to completely different areas, we don’t talk about whatever they wanted to work on, but all that stuff gets good. How come? Their lives need a little bit of tweaking, some people need a little bit of power, some people need love, some people need to be able to experience their truth and be self-expressed, some people just need more freedom. And it’s all created here (indicating inside oneself).”

The half-French and half-Armenian life coach, if you will, is seemingly a disciple of big name spiritual and motivational authors, like physician Deepak Chopra and contemporary thought leader Panache Desai. Coming from a violent past, Gravel has spent the last twenty years meditating and working on his own happiness. His features are a smidge rodent-like, but in an innocuous way: smaller stature, dark features and facial scruff, and an up-turned nose that stops abruptly. His words carry light and airy and filtered through an accent that is a mixture of his native Quebec and something else that is difficult to pinpoint.

“Happiness is the first thing to go,” explains Gravel on telltale symptoms in employees. “They’re not productive, they’re not focused, they gossip. When you’re happy, you want to create that in other people.”

“Nobody’s making money. Productivity falls, for sure. The employer can’t figure it out, usually they’re a catalyst for a lot of these issues. Employees take sick days because they have headaches, but they just don’t want to go to work. Then, nobody’s making money.”

Although the numbers are staggering and research in support of mentally healthy workplaces is climbing, not all companies are able to invest in programs. What’s a manager with limited resources to do?

“They could provide stretching time, or provide 5 to ten minutes to walk around, encourage them to talk to people. They could provide little programs where someone goes to them and talks to them for an hour.”

Also, managers and supervisors can educate themselves on how to identify a mentally unhealthy workplace, offer staff a resource, like a website, on what the company does provide, and subscribe to email lists like this one. Different mental illnesses exhibit different symptoms; the Canadian Mental Health Association says if you’ve noticed changes or are concerned about a co-worker, it is best to express concern without making assumptions.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada also says that mild depression, often influenced by life stressors within and outside the workplace, is the most common and costly to employers given its high prevalence and it being the highest aggregator of productivity loss.

Mental health problems affect an individual’s quality of life as it is a constant daily battle with the mind. Mental health problems are insidious and are not limited to the workplace. It can also manifest in your relationships with family and friends.

Communicating to a manager can be a difficult task as there is still a stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Canadian law says that employees do not need to divulge what is causing a disability to their employer, but simply that they are experiencing health challenges and to provide a description of what is needed to their work. Employees should also take advantage of any benefits or services provided by the company.

After our 59 minute conversation, Gravel was running late for his flight. For the first time ever, the interview did not end on a handshake, but, instead, with a hug.

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Neelam Sharma Freelance writer, and contributor at Vancity Buzz.
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