So you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. You’ve bitten off a coworker’s head because she forgot to return your stapler. Sleep is a luxury you never seem to have time for, and you feel just a little more fragile with each passing day. You can’t sleep, and even weekends fail to refresh you. As time goes on, you’re even beginning to feel apathetic—like what’s happening at work isn’t all that important, really.
If this sounds anything like you, know that it’s probably time to take a mental health day.
Don’t shake your head: mental health days are not the exclusive domain of people who would rather lounge around in their pyjamas than go into work. Career coach Kathy Caprino explains that reserving a specific day to relax and recharge is essential for anyone feeling too exhausted and out-of-control to function properly. Mental health days can be a healthy choice for everyone, including the hardest-working and most dedicated among us. We’d go so far as to argue that these people are the ones who need mental health days the most. So, even and especially if you think of yourself as a highly-motivated, loyal worker, consider taking some time out to rebalance your life. You’re likely to experience substantial rewards, including higher energy levels, more consistent productivity, and increased stability. The unfortunate coworker who borrowed your stapler will thank you.
Planning Your Day
Be sure to plan your mental health day in advance if at all possible. There may be days when you don’t realize you need the time away until the last minute, but most often, you’ll feel burn-out coming long before it arrives. Failing to plan ahead means you won’t make effective use of your time, and may be further strained by the consequences of taking an unplanned day off. Leaving your coworkers in the lurch and worrying about who is covering for you will not contribute to a relaxing day.
Schedule activities for yourself, and avoid isolation by asking a friend or family member to join in during your day off. Spending time with people who make you happy can only add to the experience.
Pitching it to Your Boss
Unless you’re lucky enough to be your own boss, you’ll have to request time away. In theory, notifying your boss of a mental health day should be easy. No one expects you to hesitate when you’re feeling physically ill and need rest, so why should you torture yourself for needing mental rest?
First, banish any guilt you might be feeling. Looking after your mental health shows that you are a responsible person who thinks ahead and knows how to mitigate health problems before they become detrimental to the workplace. Choosing to set aside a day for your mental well-being signals that you are a practical, self-aware employee. Before requesting time off, ensure that you are confident in your need for it.
Next, assess how you think the interaction is likely to go. What is your manager like? Are they open to discussing mental health challenges? We do realize the world is by no means an oasis of acceptance, and we’re under no illusions that mental health stigma is a thing of the past. Not all bosses will be thrilled at the idea of a mental health day, in which case you should call it a personal day and leave it at that. You are under no obligation to go into extravagant detail.
If you do have a relatively accepting boss, pitch your mental health day as a risk management strategy. A reasonable manager will understand that giving their employees one day to reset is preferable to guiding them through a stress-related and preventable meltdown. Emphasize that taking a carefully-planned day off will be of benefit to you, your coworkers, and the company or organization as a whole. Your manager should appreciate your forethought and consideration.
How to Spend the Day
Tempting as it might be, don’t waste your entire mental health day hanging out with Netflix. This activity might feel soothing at the time, but won’t usually result in lasting benefits. You’ll probably go into work the next day feeling as though you haven’t recharged properly. Instead, devote the time to activities that are enriching and engaging.
Exactly how you spend your mental health day will depend on how you’re feeling. For the overwhelmed among us, relaxation is most helpful, so select activities that will reduce tension. Go for a massage, take a walk in a green space, attend a yoga class, or grab lunch with a trusted friend.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling apathetic and numb, find activities that will energize you. Match them to your existing hobbies. Play some games. Cook an elaborate meal. Go shopping (no need to purchase anything if your budget is strained). Lifting the fog of apathy requires stimulating experiences that will remind you what excitement and passion feel like.
Essentially, the template for a successful mental health day involves avoiding stressors and enjoying activities that bring you joy and comfort. Snuggle your pet, surround yourself with loved ones, and relish being away from everything that’s weighing so heavily on you. Any iteration of this basic method should yield positive results.
Making it Last
Even the best mental health day won’t have lasting effects if you fail to make lifestyle changes. Usually, needing one in the first place stems from ongoing issues at work, meaning you’ll have to address these if you want to make meaningful progress. If you don’t incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine and maintain a healthy work-life balance, no amount of mental health breaks or even extended vacations will save you from eventual exhaustion. Accept that your current strategy is not working for you, and be willing to make a few changes. If you do, you’ll find that one mental health day can have real long-term impact.
Yesterday, we celebrated Equal Pay Day, which recognizes the gendered pay gap that persists even in 2017. Canadian women generally make about 87 cents to every Canadian man’s dollar, but the gap is wider in other parts of the world. Depending upon location, career field, age, race, and other complex factors, women still make about 20% less than men overall. This pay gap feeds systemic inequality, especially when women are paid less than men for the exact same work, and takes a toll on the health of any economy.
Today, though, we’d like to place the spotlight on a different but no less meaningful wage gap that, even on Equal Pay Day, few people seemed to be discussing. People with disabilities, who form one of the largest minority groups, face a pay gap even wider than the one affecting women. Disabled Canadians make about 25% less than their nondisabled counterparts. Elsewhere, they make as little as 37% less than nondisabled workers. Since people with disabilities already deal with other employment-related barriers, such as a high unemployment rate and fewer opportunities, the pay gap is just one more roadblock to their success.
Part of the reason this pay gap exists is society’s belief that people with disabilities are automatically worth less and are less productive at work. Regardless of education level, prior experience, and personal skills, people with disabilities still find themselves proving and reasserting their competence at every career stage. Indeed, higher educational attainment doesn’t narrow the pay gap. If anything, it widens it. People with disabilities who have a master’s degree or higher make about $20,000 less than nondisabled peers annually, even when working in exactly the same positions. No matter how well-educated a person with a disability becomes, they are at risk of being deemed less worthy of a salary commensurate with their educational achievements.
The pay gap persists at all levels, however, especially in places where subminimum wages are legal. The United States has come under fire many times for an antiquated law that permits employers to pay disabled workers below the minimum wage if they are perceived to be less productive than someone without a disability. These wages can be so staggeringly low that the worker is making less than a dollar per hour. This practice is usually found in sheltered, segregated workshops, where the labour of workers with disabilities is treated as inferior and paid for with correspondingly low wages.
Unfortunately, such laws and practices are not unique to the United States. Canada has sheltered workshops of its own, which were originally intended to give disabled workers job training but eventually led to decades of underpaid, undervalued labour. Provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all have old laws on the books that allow employers to pay employees less if their “physical or mental deficiencies” are likely to disrupt productivity. These laws are rarely invoked, but one time is really too many.
Adding to the issue is that people with disabilities tend to work fewer hours annually, mirroring the plight of women, who also tend to work fewer hours per year and consequently make less money. Men with disabilities only work about 750 hours annually, while men without disabilities work about 1,280. Women with disabilities work about 556 hours annually, while women without disabilities work about 993 hours per year. Further, people with disabilities are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs, just as women are.
The two situations reflect each other so perfectly that it is a wonder more people are not speaking out about this glaring example of inequality. There is abundant research on the gendered pay gap, but far less study devoted to examining the disability pay gap. Why? Why is 20% of the world’s population being left out of the important conversation that Equal Pay Day sparks each year?
At DECSA, we work hard to uphold the dignity and success of people with disabilities. We work with them every day, and know them to be competent, educated, skilled individuals who are ready, willing, and able to work. They make up a portion of our staff and contribute just as meaningfully as our nondisabled employees. We know that the single greatest barrier between them and gainful employment is society’s attitude, so we work to change that attitude wherever we can. Please join us in acknowledging inequality, disparity, and discrimination. Help us ensure that this conversation extends beyond us and into a world that so often misunderstands and undervalues workers with disabilities. In Canada, we all have the right to work. Let’s come together to protect that right.
Have you ever been asked whether your social media profiles are resume-ready? Polishing your social media presence is a process that mostly involves common sense. For instance, the general public is aware that posting photos from the latest wild party is a risky choice. The last thing you want hiring managers to come across when Googling you—and they will Google you—is a rage-fuelled, work-related rant.
As DECSA’s Communications Specialists will be quick to tell you, though, preparing your online presence for professional scrutiny is more complicated than removing offensive content. Today, our Community Relations team will be presenting a FAQ about shaping and maintaining a professional but personalized online presence.
Do hiring managers really care about what I do with my social media profiles?
As it turns out, they care an awful lot. One study found that 93% of hiring managers do some degree of online digging before contacting interviewees. If you don’t pass this initial screening, you won’t even be considered for an interview—and as you can imagine, that will take a serious toll on your career. In this competitive job market, you have to remember that your resume might be one of dozens or even hundreds, so you have to make an exceptional first impression before you’ve even met your interviewer(s).
Where should I begin?
The first step is probably the lengthiest. Before you start sending out resumes, you should conduct a purge of all your social media profiles. Flag any potentially offensive or unprofessional content that is open to the public. Adjust your privacy settings to manage what people can see. It’s fine to be uncensored in private spaces, but social media is rarely as private as we’d like it to be.
Remember to Google yourself to find out what has been posted about you. While you can’t control every word that’s linked with your name, being aware of what’s out there is essential. Knowledge is power.
What kind of content could get me in trouble?
Well, there’s the obvious stuff: take down or hide any unflattering photos; employers won’t be charmed by that keg you’re posing next to. Get rid of that profanity-filled rant you published in the heat of the moment. While no one expects you to be upbeat and positive all the time, it’s a good idea to keep the outrage to a reasonable level.
We should warn you that there are innocent-seeming posts that can turn employers off very quickly. Remember that time you tweeted about how talented you are at procrastinating? How about that Facebook post describing your less-than-stellar organizational skills? Everyone is human and therefore imperfect. Hiring managers ought to keep that in mind, but broadcasting your flaws for the world to see could jeopardize your career, especially if your field depends upon organizational skills and a healthy respect for deadlines.
Even if your online presence isn’t objectively offensive, your views and behaviour may not align with company culture, and that could become a stumbling block down the line.
Would it be safer to simply delete or lock down all my accounts?
Definitely not! While we don’t advise disregarding your right to privacy—we’re ardent proponents of work-life balance—we recommend that you keep at least some of your online presence public. It’s perfectly acceptable and even wise to designate one or more of your accounts as a safe space to detach from professional matters, but it’s beneficial to dedicate an account or two to showcasing yourself as a valuable member of your industry.
Share informative material that’s relevant to your chosen field, follow influential industry leaders, and take advantage of online networking opportunities.
So you’re saying I can’t be myself online?
Actually, your personal brand will thrive if you present yourself as authentically as possible. Hiring managers are interested in more than your academic credentials and work experience. They want to select someone who will be a suitable fit for their organization, so letting your personality shine through is a significant career asset. There’s a difference between being attractive to the professional world and stifling your identity. You can have the most impressive resume around, but if you don’t come across as a cooperative, positive contributor to an organization’s culture, chances are you won’t be getting that call-back.
All of this seems really complicated. Is social media more of a threat to my career than a benefit?
Don’t be discouraged: it’s simpler than it sounds, and if you think strategically about what you post, the maintenance will seem like a breeze. In the end, you have to put social media to work. Approach your online presence like the marketing tool that it is. Establish an online portfolio, keep your LinkedIn account up-to-date, and feel free to share professional and personal accomplishments. Use social media as a space for putting yourself out there. If you make the necessary effort, you’ll certainly reap the reward. Take it from us: social media is your friend. Treat it like one.
In honour of Bell Let’s Talk day, we’d like to address mental health—a topic very dear to our vision and mission.
Despite the many public initiatives, awareness campaigns, and personal stories meant to debunk myths and celebrate acceptance, stigma and shame associated with mental illness seems to reign supreme. Canadians’ fear and anxiety, rarely justifiable as it is, erects unnecessary and intimidating barriers between those with mental illness and the treatment that could save their lives. Since mental illness affects all of us, it’s more important than ever that we show support and solidarity, today and every day.
Canada’s troubling mental health landscape can be illustrated by disturbing statistics assembled by the Canadian Mental Health Association:
• 20% of Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.
• Roughly 50% of those dealing with mental health issues never seek medical help.
• Mental illness, treated or untreated, costs the Canadian health care system billions of dollars annually.
• Men are especially at risk, taking their own lives four times as often as women.
• 24% of deaths among youth are a result of suicide.
• A staggering 3.2 million youth in Canada have experienced a depressive episode.
There is a promising statistic, however: the CMHA claims that, when help is sought, 80% of patients will benefit significantly from treatment.
If these statistics are any indication, mental health should concern all Canadians. It’s safe to say this is a national problem, one which both government and individual citizens must work to alleviate.
Immigration and Mental Health
Canada’s Mental Health Commission addresses cultural diversity which, while being a source of enrichment for Canadian culture as a whole, can also result in an inability to pursue professional help. Recent immigrants often endure feelings of displacement and culture shock, making it difficult for them to find appropriate resources and express themselves to health care professionals who may not understand cultural context. Some immigrants’ needs can be adequately met by expanding existing services, but other groups require new services that Canada does not yet have in place. The cultivation of cultural intelligence is vital to ensuring that suitable supports are always available to immigrants who need them.
Of course, not all immigrants are prepared to request medical help. They often grapple with the conflicting expectations of their families, Canadian society, and themselves. Campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk trumpet the value of openness, but not all cultures view mental illness with such acceptance. Disclosing a mental health condition can subject the patient to ridicule and shame. They may be accused of weakness. For example, Chinese women may not confess to feeling depressed because anything other than a cheerful disposition is regarded as a character flaw. So, some of the burden of improving mental health rests within immigrant communities. Society must welcome those who are able to come forward, showing them the warmth and understanding they may not find elsewhere.
Trauma and Substance Abuse among First Nations Communities
Health Canada’s website devotes a page to listing the specific challenges faced by First Nations people. Citing the trauma caused by the legacy of residential schools and colonial oppression, the article explains that it remains impactful and harmful today. There may be few people alive to describe the horrors they lived through, but trauma is cumulative, and is passed down to children and grandchildren. The accumulation of trauma leads to unstable mental health in Aboriginal communities.
Many First Nations people, particularly youth, turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Addiction, already prevalent in Canada, is especially common and widespread in First Nations communities. Substance abuse can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, which only adds to the troubled landscape surrounding Aboriginal people.
Hope can be found in programs that focus on addiction treatment, recovery from trauma, and reconciliation. Due to disproportionately high suicide rates, programs targeting suicide prevention, particularly among youth, are also highly effective.
Mental Health on Campus
In recent years, Canadian postsecondary institutions have had to acknowledge a growing mental health crisis among their students. A mix of increasing academic pressure, unemployment, and the inherent issues faced by all young people—for it has never been easy to be young—conspire to decrease students’ general well-being. Academic life has always been challenging, but the strain students find themselves under seems to have grown exponentially. Some educators believe that this is partially the fault of primary and secondary education, which tends to emphasize self-esteem and an “everyone is a winner” mentality that is incompatible with postsecondary standards. Students may be less resilient, and a bad grade can throw them badly off course. Minor setbacks can have devastating effects.
Compounding the problem is the coping mechanism many students choose: the use of drugs, especially stimulants, leads to problems with substance abuse and addiction.
Typically, students prefer to rely on student-led programs to guide them through the process of improving their general mental health. Peer support is an essential part of the postsecondary experience. Policies encouraging mental health awareness can also do a great deal of good.
What We Can Do
Besides advocating for policies that will make affordable, effective care available to all mentally ill Canadians, there is a lot we can do as individuals to assist those who need us most.
• Listen: active, compassionate listening is a valuable skill that can make it easier to facilitate openness and acceptance. An attentive, nonjudgmental ear can make a world of difference.
• Speak up: use your voice to promote mental health awareness, and place pressure on those in power to implement mental health strategies aimed at improving the health of all Canadians.
• Reach out: if you are dealing with mental health challenges, do not do so in isolation. Talk to loved ones, and seek medical help if necessary. Mental illness is as legitimate and serious as physical illness; you cannot afford to ignore it.
DECSA is committed to mental health advocacy, especially when it comes to preserving the right of all Albertans to work. If you or someone you know feels trapped by barriers associated with employment and education, contact us. Our doors are always open.
Everyone experiences varying levels of stress, but many of us don’t understand stress or know how to deal with it effectively. This is made more challenging by the individualized nature of stress and how we cope with it. There is no universal, one-size-fits-all strategy, so we must find our own path to managing stressful situations. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to begin this journey. Here are just a few.
Stress is constantly devalued. With headlines screaming about how to eliminate and fight stress, a very important point is being overlooked: there’s such a thing as good stress, and it’s very healthy. Positive stress is characterized by its short-term nature and ability to motivate you. Good stress is what helps you keep your energy levels high while writing an exam. It helps you evade dangerous situations, which is the original purpose of our fight-or-flight response. It helps you sharpen your focus and conquer deadlines without collapsing. In short, it helps you tackle even the most difficult tasks without burning out or giving up.
Bad stress, by contrast, is chronic, acute, and harmful to your overall health. Unlike positive stress, it contributes to burnout and even physical ailments like depression, cancer, heart conditions, and the natural process of aging. Once you learn to distinguish between good and bad stress, you can convert chronic, destructive stress to healthy, positive stress.
2. Change your perception
As we’ve covered already, stress does not necessarily deserve its bad reputation. So, it’s important to understand that your reactions to and perception of stress are more powerful than the feeling itself. Luckily, your brain is equipped to adapt over time, so if you practice active alteration of your thought processes, you can begin to view stress as a force to be mastered rather than an enemy to be avoided.
Remember, too, that stress is by no means inevitable. Everyone reacts differently to the same situations, which proves that we are not programmed to respond the way we do to things that frighten and stress us out. There is freedom in working to change your instinctive tendencies. When you do, you’ll begin to notice a reduction in anxiety and better control of your emotions.
Let’s face it: we all know the essential components of good health, but rarely honour them. It’s no secret that regular exercise, restful sleep, and a nutritious diet all contribute to a healthier lifestyle, but these have other benefits, too.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle has been shown to reduce negative stress and enhance the benefits of positive stress. Energy levels rise, motivation increases, and general well-being is within reach. If you do more than the bare minimum when caring for yourself, you’ll spot the difference almost immediately.
Effective planning of your day-to-day life is invaluable, not just for productivity, but also for a more relaxed, manageable life. When you don’t schedule time in an efficient way, you will suffer for it. It’s easy, really. One of the best methods you can use is to schedule leisure or relaxation time for yourself each day. You don’t have to do this for long if your timetable doesn’t permit—just take fifteen minutes or so each day to do something you love. Choose activities that require low energy, and put aside your worries for that short time. Unstructured time doesn’t have to be wasted time.
Of course, you can always employ quicker coping mechanisms throughout the day. Take a moment to do some breathing exercises. Plan your day in advance so you don’t need to worry about deadlines. Balance work-related time with family and social time. No matter how crowded your schedule becomes, it’s imperative that you set aside time for fun and social interaction.
Coping with stress may seem like a long, daunting process, but when you implement concrete, practical solutions, you’ll notice equally concrete results. Stress is not your enemy. Learn to make peace with and master it, and it becomes an advantage, not a setback.
Almost everyone dreams, however briefly, of being an entrepreneur. The independence, the passion, the flexibility—these are all attractive prospects, especially after a long, gruelling day at a conventional job. Who among us hasn’t imagined what it would be like to be our own boss?
No matter how exciting entrepreneurship may seem, it isn’t for everyone. It takes a special person to conceive a viable idea, make it grow into a successful enterprise, and nurture it through inevitable ups and downs. Some lack the zeal, confidence, and work ethic; others, the money and time. If starting a small business isn’t suited to your personality, you’re in for a long, hard road.
If you’re on the fence, here is a starting point. This assessment won’t give you a definitive answer, but if you answer “no” to one or more of these questions, entrepreneurship probably isn’t for you.
- Do you enjoy challenges? There’s nothing easy about establishing your own business, so you’ll need to relish a challenge and enjoy new experiences, no matter how anxiety-inducing they are.
- Are you competitive? Whether your business is unique or an innovative approach to an existing product or service, be prepared to face competition.
- How well do you handle risk-taking? If you’re risk-averse, you’ll find the entrepreneurial lifestyle stressful, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to sustain it for long. Even highly-successful business owners will have to make calculated risks at some point in their careers. On the other hand, if you’re “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” you’ll be right at home!
- What’s your approach when spending money? You have to spend money to make money, but unhealthy spending habits are hard to break, and can do serious harm to your business.
- Can you handle long-term commitment? Growing your business means you’ll be pouring your resources and time into the same project, day in and day out. It won’t always be fun, interesting, or successful, so you’ll need to know that you can weather the tough times—and there will be tough times.
- Do big decisions scare you? Decisiveness is one of the qualities entrepreneurs must possess if they hope to succeed. Running a business means you’ll be faced with all sorts of decisions, and many of them will involve huge expenditures and frightening risks. If you believe you can handle these decisions under crushing pressure, you’re likely to be an excellent entrepreneur.
- How do you respond to stress? Burnout is common for new business owners, since they work long hours with minimal support (or none at all). Coping with stress and exhaustion in a healthy, efficient way is key.
- Is persistence in your nature? Throughout their journeys, many entrepreneurs contemplate giving up. A strong work ethic and zealous passion aren’t always enough. While it’s important to practice self-care and avoid unnecessary stress, entrepreneurship means refusing to fold under significant strain.
While these questions can serve as a springboard, remember that there’s no replacement for research and hands-on experience. Even if your personality matches that of the ideal entrepreneur, you still need to discover whether your idea is viable and, if it is, whether you actually want to pursue it. Examining your chosen field, starting your business on a very small scale, and interacting with other entrepreneurs are additional ways to test the waters. You can also get out and participate in entrepreneurship workshops or programs, such as Ventures, DECSA’s program for entrepreneurs with disabilities. After all, studying entrepreneurship on paper is nothing like the real thing.
Myth: Asking for help makes you weak.
Many people are socialized to believe this but it is smarter to avoid working in isolation. Humans are naturally cooperative, so functioning as an island goes against nature. Feeling indebted to someone else can be awkward, but overcoming this awkwardness to lean on others shows strength, not weakness.
Myth: You’ll figure it out on your own, somehow.
Sure, it’s likely that you’ll manage on your own, but why manage when you can excel? Collaboration can yield the best results, especially if you work with people whose aptitudes are compatible with your project. Some assignments just aren’t possible to complete by yourself in a given time frame. By refusing to ask for help and struggling along on your own, you’re actually missing out on potential networking and relationship building opportunities.
Myth: People don’t want to help me.
Don’t get us wrong: during particularly busy times, your peers may be stressed and unable to take on further tasks. However, most of the time, people like to help, as altruism makes the reward pathway in the brain light up like a Christmas tree. When you specifically seek someone out for help, they may feel especially useful. Lastly, picture your own reaction: you’re willing to help others, so what makes you think they don’t want to help you, too?
Fact: Asking for help is worth it.
Don’t let these myths discourage you from asking for help. If you’re specific about what you need and why, and direct and polite when asking, you’re likely to receive the help you need. And if they say no, ask someone else, or adjust your plan for completing the assignment. In addition to meeting your targets, accepting help from someone is likely to lead to an even better relationship built on trust and mutual understanding. Of course, never forget to give a heartfelt thank you and make sure you pay it forward! Next time someone asks you for help, return the favour, if you can.
How can DECSA help you?
DECSA is available to help Albertans overcome barriers to employment and education. Individuals looking to exit the sex trade are invited to join our Transitions program, where we provide supports and encouragement to escape the sexual exploitation lifestyle. Youth between the ages of 15-30 with a visible or invisible disability are welcome in our Assets for Success and Time for Change programs, where we assist them in getting the skills and making the connections necessary to enter the workforce. We also offer a unique program for entrepreneurs with disabilities called Ventures, which assists with business planning.
So why not reach out for help when you need it? There’s a lot to gain and little to lose.
You’ve begun to notice something disturbing: one of your coworkers is behaving strangely. They’re constantly late, but their excuses are vague. They always seem to have one minor injury or another, and are uncomfortable when you ask what happened. They frequently receive personal phone calls—phone calls that appear to upset them. They’re preoccupied and startle easily. They seem anxious all the time, and they refuse to discuss it.
If you’ve seen any of these signs, it’s possible that your coworker is experiencing family violence. While the situation is delicate, there are steps you can and should take to reach out to them.
In recognition of Family Violence Prevention Month, we’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts when bringing up the issue with a coworker. We hope you’ll never have to use it, but since 25% of violent crimes reported in Canada are related to family violence, it’s important to have this information handy, just in case.
Asking the Question
Bringing up the issue can be awkward for both of you, and the way in which you ask can mean the difference between a positive response and a total refusal to speak. Approach the process with care.
- Don’t assume all victims are women: if you see suspicious signs consistent with family violence in a male coworker’s behaviour, remember that he may be dealing with family violence. Men make up roughly 50% of victims, but struggle to report (and are rarely believed when they do).
- Do maintain confidentiality: ask the question in private, so that your coworker doesn’t feel pressured or uncomfortable. Reassure them that, whatever happens, you’re a safe person to speak to.
- Don’t jump right in: first explain the signs you’ve been noticing, then express general concern. A good place to start is to ask them whether there is anything going on at home.
- Do be gentle: if your coworker is taking time to respond or has difficulty getting their words out, listen patiently. An open ear is one of the best ways to encourage a response.
- Don’t push the issue: if your coworker clams up, becomes hostile, or insists nothing is wrong, back off. You can’t coerce them into discussing what’s going on. All you can do is reiterate that you’re there to support them, and keep the offer open.
Handling the Response
So, your coworker has revealed that they’re experiencing family violence. Now what should (and shouldn’t) you do?
- Do emphasize trust: it isn’t easy to report abuse, so you must ensure they know that you are a trustworthy person. Breaking their trust could lead them to develop trust issues long afterward, so be very careful.
- Don’t judge: it’s natural to want to tell them that their relationship is unhealthy or to ask them why they would stay in that type of situation. You may even be tempted to mention that you, personally, would never tolerate abusive behaviour. Remember that one of the most harmful ways to handle their admission is to make your colleague feel judged, so keep your opinions out of the conversation and focus on how you can help them move forward without judgment or shame.
- Do thank them for telling you: acknowledge that it wasn’t an easy thing to do, and tell them you’re grateful they trusted you.
- Don’t ask for details: discussing the abuse may be painful for them, so don’t ask why it’s happening or how severe it is. Probing for specifics might cause them to become uncomfortable and abandon the conversation altogether.
- Do remind them that they’re not alone: it’s essential that you stress the fact that you believe them. If they know that at least one person is looking out for them, they may feel inspired to seek further help.
You’ve opened a dialogue with your coworker, they’ve admitted they’re being abused, and they’ve indicated they’d like to take further steps. Where should you go from here?
- Don’t tell them what to do: victims are experts on their own situations, so no matter how strongly you feel, remember that your role is to support them and make them aware of their options. The rest is up to them.
- Do encourage them to reach out to others: suggest that they talk to a supervisor or human resources professional, who may be able to alert security of any potential threats to their safety.
- Don’t initiate rescue missions: your coworker may have reasons for staying in an abusive relationship that don’t include love or loyalty. For example, they may be financially dependent on their abuser, or may have their children’s safety to think of as well.
- Do ask open-ended questions: your coworker may be able to list concrete ways to help them. Maybe you can screen calls from their abuser, document signs of abuse, or accompany them if they need to exit the building during the work day. They will know their needs best, so ask them for suggestions and respect their wishes.
- Don’t offer conditional support: make it clear that whatever they choose to do, you will always be there should they need any other assistance. Perhaps one day, if they decide to take action, they’ll be able to lean on you.
When Lawrence received the diagnosis for the ADHD he had had his entire life, he was in a very dark place. He was so depressed, in fact, that he did not know where to turn, and wasn’t sure how he’d continue to deal with his “scattered mind.” Unsure of which direction to take, he stumbled upon DECSA and joined the Ventures program.
The Ventures program suited his entrepreneurial spirit, and DECSA was vital in his recovery. In addition to his mental health struggles, he was plagued by physical issues, adding another barrier to his success. He confided in our staff, allowing them to help him understand the changes occurring in his life. The program helped him hone his existing skills and understand his disability more clearly. It was at DECSA that Lawrence realized ADHD didn’t have to be a barrier—and that it could even be an asset.
“I started understanding myself and what I could do in this world,” he said, “and realized that DECSA was a place where I felt safe.”
After he left the program, Lawrence searched for a way to use his entrepreneurial spirit and newfound confidence. Some friends of his, also entrepreneurs, invited him to help reinvent a company called Combined Insurance. The company has been around since 1922, and under the leadership of Lawrence and his team, it has made a stunning comeback.
Lawrence describes Combined Insurance as a company dedicated to helping people “prepare for, work through, and recover from life trauma.” Combined Insurance focuses on filling in the gaps of existing medical insurance, supplementing health plans and insuring those who would otherwise struggle to be covered at all. The aim, Lawrence says, is to sit clients down, figure out which difficulties they’re facing, and help them understand the benefits they already have. From there, it’s just a matter of providing the extra assistance needed to walk the client through their recovery, whatever it might look like.
Lawrence explains that his own trauma and recovery gave him an edge: he is able to understand what clients are going through more intimately, and can demonstrate to them that he’s been through trauma of his own. This places him in a unique position to help them recover from their own experiences.
“I want [clients] to know that I’ve been in dark spots too, that it’s okay, and that we can move forward together.”
For Lawrence, it’s all about community. Being around people who have suffered through dark times reminds him of how far he has come, and allows him to fulfill his life’s purpose. Even though he no longer works with us, Lawrence remains strongly attached to DECSA and the community we serve.
“I’m a big fan of DECSA. I could not have found my mission and purpose in life without them. DECSA is a place I can call home.”
Work is good for us. There is evidence that it makes us happier, and while mental illness can hamper your ability to work, you really should if you can. Disclosing your mental illness might feel like a lose-lose situation: you must reveal sensitive information about yourself, and your boss must figure out how to deal with it. The stigma surrounding mental illness doesn’t help, either. Despite numerous campaigns, articles, and attempts to educate the public, myths and misconceptions are difficult to dispel. There’s certainly a possibility of negative consequences, so it can be a frightening prospect.
“If it’s so risky, why should I tell?”
Perhaps the most pressing reason is that if your mental illness interferes with your work, you are obligated to disclose it. This is actually meant to help you; telling management that you face performance issues and require accommodations will make your job easier. You have a responsibility to let your boss know so they can support you.
Another compelling reason is that, by disclosing, you have an opportunity to educate others. Your productivity can prove to your superiors that mental health issues are not an insurmountable obstacle. You can lead by example, and reduce stigma at the same time.
“What should I say?”
There are several approaches you can take. It all depends on the nature of your illness and how comfortable you are with exposing personal information. If you struggle with the idea of being vulnerable, you can use general terms. You don’t need to be too specific. You only have to talk about what is relevant to your work situation. You are not even required to name your illness, if you don’t want to.
Talk about your strengths. While you do need to discuss the ways in which your illness will affect your performance, you should also point out the ways in which it won’t interfere. Make sure your manager is aware that you are still an asset, not a liability.
Stress that your illness is not a symptom of a bad attitude. Help them understand that at least some of your issues are beyond your control and that, while you’ll try to give it your best, there will be times when you struggle. Make sure you explain how this can be dealt with.
“How can I help my boss understand me?”
The first step is to tell them about your specific needs and preferences. Be honest and forthright about the accommodations that will help you do your best work. Chances are, they won’t know much about the topic, and they definitely can’t know what you’ll require unless you tell them. Don’t make them guess.
It’s a good idea to present them with brochures and other educational materials. Different sources of information are helpful, especially if you find it difficult to share that information yourself. This may also help them get past any deeply-ingrained beliefs about mental illness, which may be out of date or simply wrong.
“I’m still not sure about this…”
Disclosing mental illness will never be easy, but trust us when we say that failing to do so is the bigger risk by far. It causes intense anxiety in most cases, but once it’s over, there is an excellent chance you won’t regret it. It may result in a more supportive environment, and once the required accommodations are in place, you’ll be a happier, more productive employee. We know it’s hard, but be brave and take the leap. You’ll be glad you did.