Canada needs to improve mental health awareness and practices for workers

Photo: flickr/Jhayne

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One in five Canadians will suffer from a mental health illness or problem during their lifetime, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Statistics also show the annual economic cost to the country is at least $50 billion -- a figure only expected to climb in future years.

In Part 1 of a two-part special feature, labour reporter Teuila Fuatai speaks to Teamsters representatives who are fighting to improve mental health awareness and practises for workers.

 

Jordan Madarash

Teamsters local 362 business agent, Edmonton

This month marked four years since gunman Travis Baumgartner opened fire during an armed robbery at the University of Alberta HUB mall.

Working as a G4S armoured car guard, Baumgartner killed three of his fellow guards and seriously injured a fourth.

Teamsters local 362 business agent Jordan Madarash was an employee with G4S when the tragic June 15 incident occurred in 2012. Last week, he was among the thousands who gathered to commemorate the incident, which forced many in his workplace to confront the lack of mental health support and practises available on the job.

"It changed our whole philosophy on mental health and mental health awareness," Madarash said of the shooting.

"I had no knowledge of any kind of mental health awareness."

Madarash, who was part of the investigation team into the incident, said addressing the differences in workplace attitudes towards mental health was tough.

"We had a 15-year member go off on post-traumatic stress disorder to get help. When he came back to work, even though he'd worked with colleagues for 15 years, nobody wanted to work with him.

"We also had new hires…that were coming in a week after the shooting and no one wanted to work with them because they'd never worked with them before."

It essentially divided the workplace, however, it sparked a much-needed discussion around mental health, he said.

"It's now evolved -- four years later -- where we have language in collective agreements that the employer has agreed to have mental health awareness programs in their workplace and help promote mental health."

And as a Teamsters business agent in Edmonton and a member of the Teamsters Canada Youth Committee, one of Madarash's top priorities is ensuring the 7,500 members he represents have access to workplace support systems around mental health.

"A lot of companies agree with the philosophy of having some sort of awareness, and then some companies -- like the one I'm dealing with this week -- [are] going above and beyond and [are] willing to have a monetary process to pay someone come in and train the managers and the staff."

"Our mandate is to definitely have some sort of mental health awareness language in the collective agreements."

Victories so far include the ratification of a contract last month that guaranteed a "Safe and Sound" mental health awareness workshop for frontline and management staff. Many of the 130 members of the bargaining unit -- which represents security guards -- have identified major stresses around their tough day/night work schedule, Madarash said.

"Days are extremely busy and nights are a little bit more slack. [Workers] feel mentally strained after their four days of work because they're doing two days and two nights with no break between those sets, and then having four days off," he said.

The workshop looks at how people can spot mental health problems and ways in which people can approach those who are or may be struggling with mental health issues.

 

Brock Penner,

Teamsters local 987 business agent, Calgary

Former Coca-Cola employee Brock Penner was a shift worker for more than a decade.

One of three employees who helped organize hundreds of workers at the company's Calgary plant in 2007, Penner suffered bouts of depression during his time with the multinational.

"I actually worked nights for about 11 years. And then I moved to day shift and that's when I started driving truck and my shifts varied. Sometimes I'd start at 1:00 a.m. [or] 7:00 a.m. in the morning -- it was all over the place."

Penner, a past president of the Teamsters Canada Youth Committee, understands better than most what it's like being in a workplace with little awareness around mental health.

"Before I became a business agent, as a shop steward, I would almost say I was guilty of [this]. Someone would bring it up [feeling down or stressed], and I would say: okay, come on, you're looking for an excuse, suck it up, get on with your day, we have a job to do."

Penner, like Madarash, has worked on the Teamsters Make it Mandatory campaign, aimed at raising awareness around mental health in workplaces.

Learning about how people were affected by mental health problems, and some of the symptoms linked to illnesses like depression or anxiety, changed things for him.

"I think I just opened my eyes, and actually spent some time getting to know people that have experienced mental illness and what a day in the life of [that person] truly is," Penner said.

"I've gone through different episodes of depression. Before actually going through this mental health campaign, and recognizing what that actually looked like, I myself thought that it was just one of those difficult days -- a lot of stress and a lot of things going on."

Looking back, Penner said it was likely that some of his co-workers were also struggling with mental health problems. The lack of knowledge around symptoms, and how to approach others were struggling made it even more difficult, he said.

"There would be days where you'd see the shift would be on a complete high and people would be willing to do whatever it took to get the job done, everybody was very easygoing, willing to work with each other.

"Then there were other shifts where you could see certain individuals, they had been struggling with something, it just brought the whole shift down and the feeling of the shift -- it was night and day," he said.

And while some employers were receptive to implementing programs and support systems around workers' mental health, it continued to be an uphill battle.

Local 987 deals with 42 companies, five of which Penner negotiates with directly.

"I've had a few [companies] that you can pick out managers that are more open and willing to work with particular members that they know have been struggling, or have…shared in confidence that [they are] dealing with mental illness.

"But, as a company as a whole -- there's not one that I deal with that has anything in place and that is managing the mental health side of things in a way that I would sit there and say, you're doing it right."

 

Ken Deptuck

National Advisor & Lobbyist, Teamsters Canada

Teamsters representative Ken Deptuck has spent more than 30 years working in the railway industry.

Beginning as an employee of Canadian Pacific's engineering department in the 1970s, Deptuck has been at the forefront of raising mental health awareness at the railways for decades.

Unlike many other workers and industries, the railway industry began tackling mental health programs in the workplace in the 1990s, Deptuck said.

Twenty years ago, there was "rampant alcohol drinking on the job." Drug use was also a problem. Employers noticed and brought in drug and alcohol programs without any union involvement, he said.

However, it wasn't as straightforward as they had anticipated.

"There were no results and no one was using it, so as a result of that they came to us," Deptuck said of the early programs.

"The company said: 'we need labour to help us gain the trust and confidentiality in our programs so that the employees will use them. We'll provide the resources for it, but we need people to use it. '"

Union involvement helped ease workers' suspicions around the programs, he said.

"They didn't trust it. They felt if the employer was paying for it, the employer would have all the information."

While confidentiality agreements ensured members were protected, it wasn't until workers who had used the programs shared their stories with other members that things changed, Deptuck said.

"It got the ball rolling and we were able to build more programs," he said.

"We incorporated some very good plans -- they're called Employee and Family Assistance Plans [EFAP] on the railways.

"They cover a tremendous array of services that assist employees in every form, from stress to critical incident stress debriefing. We have people out there straight away to take care of the employees, whether they're directly affected or indirectly affected -- even the family members are immediately debriefed to help them deal with the mental stress issues of the job -- if there's an incident."

"Also, [there are] counselling services when people are in trouble -- whether it's alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, drug addiction. We have top-of-the-notch programs in the railway industry."

Deptuck believes the railway industry's approach to mental health is relatively advanced compared to other workplaces because management grasped early on what productivity costs associated with mental health problems could be.

According to research from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illness was estimated to have cost $6.4 billion in 2011 in workplace productivity. This figure is expected to increase to $16 billion in 2041. Lost productivity costs include those caused by absenteeism, reduced worker output because employees come to work when they are unwell, as well as the costs of workers leaving the labour force altogether for mental health reasons.

"They're very convinced that the money they're putting into the program, they're getting the return and then some, because they can see the days lost and the money's coming down," Deptuck said of railway bosses.

For workers, lost profits are less important than addressing the personal issues head-on. Banishing the stigma associated with mental health remains a key focus for Teamsters in the railway industry.

Continuing to educate and encourage members to have conversations about mental health is the next major part of the journey, Deptuck says.

In addition to his role with Teamsters, Deptuck is on the board of directors of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation Tamarack Recovery Centre in Winnipeg. He also sits on the board of directors for the Employee Assistance Trade Association.

 

Visit the Teamsters Make it Mandatory campaign here.

In part 2 of this special feature, Teuila Fuatai will discuss mental health with health-care workers.

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/Jhayne

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