Encouraging news about employer positive approach to mental health issues | Courtney Mulqueen

By Courtney Mulqueen ·

Law360 Canada (March 28, 2024, 1:58 PM EDT) --
Courtney Mulqueen
Courtney Mulqueen
Few of us are able to escape workplace stress, but a growing commitment by more employers toward a more preventative approach to mental health issues is a promising sign.

An increasing number of people are considering mental health care on an ongoing basis, even if they are not in a crisis. There is a move to supportive therapy. More organizations are developing ways to address mental health issues, taking a holistic approach. That could include gym memberships for physical fitness and therapy sessions to help employees manage stress.

Addressing an issue early can help avoid long periods of absenteeism that can have financial consequences for both employer and employee. The hope is this approach becomes widely available and acceptable to the point where if you do want to go and get regular maintenance mental health therapy, you can.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety.

A shift in focus has put the issue more in the mainstream. There are more resources available and even just talking about mental health has become more acceptable.

However, as our memories of the pandemic fade, the prospect of slipping back to old habits cannot be discounted.

It will be interesting to see if we eventually revert to the former workplace culture where we are back in the office, working long hours and failing to care for ourselves because that is how it was before.

Many professions, such as health care, finance and the law, attract people with a certain go, go, go personality type. Unfortunately, that mentality prevails until they cannot go any longer. Some continue to push themselves to work in a pressurized environment for longer than they probably should. People may turn to substances or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, as opposed to admitting that they are struggling, just so they can keep up with the hectic pace of their lives.

The tragic death last September of British lawyer Vanessa Ford comes to mind. She was suffering from an “acute mental health crisis” when she was struck by a train in East London.

Ford was a senior equity partner working up to 18 hours a day. An inquest heard she “was wracked with guilt over missing time with her two children” at the time of her death.

She had consumed a “significant” amount of alcohol when she fell onto a railway line and was struck by a train. The coroner stated there was no evidence she intended to die by suicide.

British Transport Police at the time said Ford left a note at home that expressed “a degree of helplessness” although she had raised no concerns about stress at work.

The managing partner at Ford’s law firm pledged to address mental health issues in light of the tragic death.

“We want this to be an ongoing conversation with colleagues to ensure we are doing everything we can to support our people. Across the legal industry — and more generally in society — a stigma around mental health persists and this is challenging to address,” Laura Cameron stated. “With vigilance, refreshed support measures and ongoing dialogue, both internally and externally, we will seek to make positive and lasting change.”

It is not unusual for lawyers to work long hours to meet the demands of the jobs and the demands they inflict upon themselves, sometimes even taking on their client’s stress.

It can be part of the job but may also impact mental well-being. There are professions where you are recognized, praised and compensated for putting in extra time and billing extra hours. These performance expectations and standards could mean you are under constant pressure, which takes a toll on a person’s mental health. Certainly, that reality exists in the legal profession.

Unfortunately, there can still be this underlying notion that admitting any sort of burnout or feeling of helplessness is a sign of weakness and makes you a lesser professional. That is just such a dangerous misconception. It can be extremely risky if people are afraid to admit they are struggling.

Shortly before she died, Ford had made a call to a mental health professional to discuss her depression and alcohol consumption but was unable to get an appointment, it was reported.

The shortage of mental health professionals seems to be a universal problem. People may be able to recognize they have a problem, but what do they do then? They need help. In some cases, it is not that they don’t want to talk to someone about their issue. It comes down to how they source the care they need if it is just not available.

While access to mental health professionals remains a problem, there is reason for optimism as more companies commit to their employees’ well-being.

It was recently reported in Benefits Canada that “workplace wellness and employee mental health are popular topics of discussion and top priorities for organizations across Canada.”

“Over the past couple of years, employers have been responding to mental-health needs within their workplace as a reaction to employees in times of need,” it states. “Organizations have offered webinars, increased psychological benefit amounts and signed up for programs that supported their workforce in a time of crisis. Nearly four years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, employers have much more knowledge, perspective and research on how to best support their teams.

“Research around the return on investment of employee mental health has now been widely circulated and accepted. Organizations are moving away from the quick-fix approach and are investing time, effort and personnel dedicated to this work.”

It is encouraging that this trend in work culture appears to be picking up traction.

More people appear to be making an ongoing commitment to psychological care, just as you would go to the gym or see your family doctor or your dentist regularly. It just makes sense to care for your mental health just as you would your physical health. It is simply one more way to care for ourselves in these hectic times.

Courtney Mulqueen, of Mulqueen Disability Law, has over 20 years of experience litigating disability claims. Her focus and passion is representing disabled plaintiffs who suffer from complex “invisible conditions” like mental health and chronic conditions that are difficult to prove, diagnose and treat.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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