When working with advisors, Lisa Ann Butcher likes to use the analogy of a coloured glass cylinder. When someone is happy, the colour in their imaginary cylinder might be yellow or orange. But “if there’s somebody who’s had something horrible happen to them, that might be a swirling dark blue,” said Butcher, a Registered Clinical Counsellor and the owner and Clinical Director at Three Sisters Counselling in Vancouver and Kelowna, B.C.
While friends and colleagues can’t change that colour, they can be aware of it and reach out with help, Butcher told advisors attending Benefits Alliance’s 2023 Connect Conference in Halifax conference this past September. “It’s something we should all be talking about,” she said.
A big part of supporting employees struggling with mental health is understanding one’s own mental state. “We can’t support other people unless we ourselves are emotionally healthy,” she said.
That means being able to identify emotional triggers, being vulnerable about what you’re feeling, setting boundaries and making time for relaxation and reflection. By having that base of wellness, employees are more aware of their own emotions—and able to support others. Plus, they’ll be less likely to resort to maladaptive behaviours, such as drinking, smoking or using cannabis to relax.
All in all, mental health begins with the individual, said Butcher. But organizations have a critical role to play in ensuring that their culture and health benefits plans support mental health.
Preventing mental health fallout
When organizations fail to help address the mental health issues of their employees, those who are struggling with anxiety, depression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder or ADHD may feel like they have nowhere to turn. As a result, employees call in sick, and those absences can quickly turn into costly short-term and long-term disability leaves, said Butcher. Plus, a firm that fails to offer robust mental health support might be seen by prospective employees as less attractive.
“We want to mitigate the damage,” she said.
The best way for plan sponsors to support their plan members is to foster a culture that champions mental health. That includes training employees, especially senior level staff, about how to recognize possible symptoms of a mental health issue such as an increase in passive-aggressive comments, low motivation, less productivity, increased anxiety and social withdrawal. Employees who comment that there is no point in working on or finishing tasks could be sending up red flags for depression or suicidal ideation.
To encourage the sharing of mental health struggles, Butcher suggested plan sponsors organize events like Talk Thursdays, a weekly event during which employees from all levels of the organization share what mental health concerns they have. “How we get to know people is about being vulnerable,” said Butcher. “You need to give to receive.”
She also said that educating managers and colleagues about how to communicate empathy can be an effective way of supporting employees and steering them to care. Phrases such as, ‘I’m sorry you’re dealing with so much, I notice you’ve been struggling. How can I help?’ and ‘Do you want me to come with you to tell management?’ can be a stigma-free way of handling difficult conversations, she noted.
Butcher also suggested organizations frequently check in with employees, whether that’s through anonymous feedback, group check-ins or one-on-one meetings. “There needs to be managerial receptivity,” she said. “Everyone needs to agree and be working towards the same goal.”
Finally, plan sponsors should educate plan members about their mental health benefits, including through an employee assistance program (EAP). She emphasized that many EAPs, such as CloudMD, offer virtual, in-person and group counselling, and can design personalized care programs.
“We need to meet people where they are—not where we are,” said Butcher.