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The last taboo by Deanne Gage

It’s the subject no one wants to talk about: mental health. But with one-fifth of Canadians experiencing a mental health issue, chances are you’ll encounter it. And when it starts to affect your workplace, avoiding it isn’t an option.

That first audit season triggered something in David Albert Newman. Back in 2000, he recalls how his firm at the time reduced the standard audit timeline to four days from six. That translated into 16-hour workdays with no breaks save for quickly munching a sandwich while staring at spreadsheets on a computer. Newman, a Winnipeg-based CGA who was also studying for the UFE, found himself surprised at how he couldn’t keep up with the gruelling hours and compressed deadlines.

It’s a lifestyle Greg Kyte knows well. Busy seasons at billable-hour firms in particular can make or break professional accountants. "Part of it is what we sign up for, but there’s some stress that’s hard to talk about," says Kyte, a US CPA based in Utah.

Some managers may think they’re easing the stress by paying for, say, 20-minute chair massages, but all the accountant can think about is how to make up that 20 minutes of lost time, he says. When Kyte’s heart started racing uncontrollably at work one day during tax season, he dragged himself to the doctor, praying he wasn’t having a heart attack. Kyte was prescribed some anti-anxiety medicine and had few issues after that.

Newman’s situation wasn’t that straightforward. As time went on, coworkers began noticing his struggles and wondered what was wrong. Newman wondered himself. He hadn’t a clue that there was a bigger problem other than that he had difficulty unwinding and sleeping for the few hours he wasn’t in the office. Newman suffered with anxiety and depression and was fired after his performance went downhill. He struggled for years to find similar work. He worked as a dishwasher for a while to make ends meet before landing an accounting position with the province of Manitoba.

In 2005 Newman was officially diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When he disclosed the diagnosis to his employer in 2010, he received one poor performance appraisal after another. "Before, everything was positive," says Newman. "It was ‘David is furthering his education.’ After the diagnosis, there was no positive whatsoever." More than two years and countless negative performance reviews later, Newman lost his job in 2013. He is currently on disability and hopes to open a part-time tax practice.

About 20% of Canadians will have a mental health issue in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. The mental health price tag in Canada is estimated at $50 billion when you factor in absenteeism, loss of productivity and overall healthcare costs. While mental health has attracted mainstream media attention — notably Olympian Clara Hughes’ ride across Canada to gather awareness — a stigma still exists. A 2012 Ipsos Reid survey about mental health in the workplace polled more than 6,600 Canadian working individuals. Among the results: employers aren’t perceived to be as accommodating of mental health issues as they are of other health issues. Few employees relish the thought of bringing their mental health issue to an employer, no matter how generous the policies. Instead, they wonder how people will react to them or whether making partner is even an option for someone like them. The Ipsos Reid study found that while 83% of all employees surveyed think they should disclose if they have a mental illness, 31% fear their manager would not be empathetic.

The good news: most managers want to accommodate and support workers going through an emotional episode, according to the same survey. But here’s the problem: the same survey found that 63% of managers feel they lack the skill sets and would like more training in order to best help their employees. According to Mary Ann Baynton, program director for Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, the right skill set means dealing with emotional intelligence issues. Ideally managers would have strong proficiency in four areas: understanding their own emotions; being able to manage those emotions; being able to recognize the emotions of others; and being able to respond appropriately. But just 1% of 2,300 Canadian managers and supervisors surveyed rated high in all four of those categories. Forty-seven percent were challenged in one or more of those areas.

Without proper training, managers are left to their own devices and can make a bad situation worse. Baynton hears from many managers who believe that they could recognize someone with a mental health issue and know how to best manage the situation when the occasion arises, though only some are actually equipped to do so. "The reality is, that’s not true because people are unique," says Baynton. "Every person who has clinical depression, for example, is going to manifest different behaviours in the workplace depending on the relationships and personalities already present in the workplace."

In the case of depression, some workers may be emotional and weepy. Some may withdraw and not interact much with coworkers or managers. Some may be irritable and cranky. But here’s the kicker: with other depressed workers, you may never even know or see an outward sign that they’re dealing with a mental health issue, Baynton says.

Here’s another pitfall: some managers may project extreme pity and decide not to ask anything of the employee with regards to doing his or her job. "That can lead to a loss of morale for the team but also a loss of self-esteem for the individual," Baynton says. "It’s also frustrating for the manager who still has to meet certain objectives."

Other managers may act similarly to Newman’s boss back in 2000: put pressure on the employee and start severe discipline procedures. "There really is a middle ground, which is, how do we help someone do their job?" Baynton says. "This misplaced sense of [thinking], ‘I’m going to deal with this person and get them to admit they have a mental illness’ causes a lot of problems that are not necessary in the workplace."

Finally, managers shouldn’t ignore the superstars who appear to be overperforming. It’s a common approach to those team members who are dedicated and hardworking and therefore, the manager thinks, there is no need to intervene. "When somebody is going faster and taking on more, it’s socially acceptable," Baynton notes. "The problem is when those individuals crash, it’s a more difficult thing for the individual to come to terms with. If they are in a situation where their energy is tapped out because they didn’t have balance in their life, it can be overwhelming."

What’s the best way for employers to address mental health issues in the workplace? By not looking at mental health as a silo. Instead, treat all employees, regardless of their issues, according to the same basic premise. The goal should be to support all employees and give them what they need to do their job successfully, says Baynton. "The employer can’t have control over someone with a mental health issue any more than they can over [someone with] asthma, for example," she says. "What they can do is make sure there are no hazards in the workplace that will exacerbate or bring on symptoms for those individuals. A person with a mental health issue may need a different way of communicating. [The manager] may need to give instructions or feedback differently. But that doesn’t mean [he or she] can’t do the job."

Do this and there’s a big payoff for the employer and managers. More engagement. Less resentment and conflict among coworkers. It’s just good business.

Take EY’s "people first" philosophy, for example. It was launched in the mid-1990s when the company realized it had a client-oriented culture but needed to acknowledge all of its internal staff needs more, says Jeannine Pereira, diversity, inclusiveness and human equity leader at EY Canada. While many employers have similar programs today, it was rare 20 years ago.

"People first" is an all-encompassing philosophy that gives employees the right to flexible work arrangements, for instance. "Your issue could be health related, it could be childcare or eldercare or something else," Pereira says. "We have these policies in place so you can come forward and be comfortable asking for an accommodation or adjustment at work."

An EY manager must discuss everyone’s schedules, especially during an audit, so he or she knows what will work for the team and what will work for the individual. "It allows people to raise issues at that time," she says.

Managers must also take mandatory training every year to better manage and supervise their staff, Pereira says.

For accounting firms looking for outside assistance, the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace has developed many free resources. One document features 20 questions companies need to consider about psychological health and safety.

Baynton, through Great-West, helped develop Managing Mental Health Matters, a free web-based series of video modules that companies can have their managers participate in. She found that watching videos resonated better with managers than reading a bunch of articles since it’s less time consuming and easier to follow. Managers can follow along as fictional coworkers reenact various scenarios. They can also direct the fictional manager’s responses through the different situations and experience the successes and failures in different managerial styles. The modules include how to address the need for reasonable accommodation, performance management, emotional intelligence, managing conflict and how workers can reestablish a team dynamic after taking some time off. Baynton notes that all the scenarios are based on real workplace experiences that she personally encountered. Check out the modules at

Will initiatives such as the Managing Mental Health Matters modules and "people first" philosophy make a difference with employees?

It’s a good step in the right direction, but some accountants such as Kyte find the accounting culture ultimately comes down to whether or not you can hack it. He wrote about mental illness and public accounting on his blog on the website Going Concern and noted that magazine website rated accounting as one of the top 10 careers with high rates of depression.

Anxiety and depression weren’t even discussed at Kyte’s previous firm and he wonders if opening up an informal dialogue between manager and accountant would make a difference. "Even if firms could be proactive and say, ‘We understand that some of you may for the first time in your lives face anxiety like you haven’t seen before. Situations like your first busy season or a really bad season could be a trigger,’ " he says. "That in itself will make your employees more willing to have conversations with their superiors about what’s going on with them during tough times like that."

Newman isn’t so sure since he did disclose his paranoid schizophrenia and noticed a difference in how he was treated. But adding more social support, as Baynton proposes, would greatly help.

"It’s not that we can’t do the work," he emphasizes. "We just need a little more time. Some workers are more reflective thinkers and take a bit longer to think about what they are doing. It’s not a wrong or right way of thinking, it’s just different."

Deanne Gage is a Toronto-based freelance writer.


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