The Elephant in the Office

Today is World Mental Health Day.  This year’s theme is mental health in the workplace.

While most of us would probably agree that work shouldn’t be the focus of our lives, the reality is we spend most of our waking time at work. It’s no surprise then that the workplace can have a significant impact on our overall well-being.

A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that “depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity.” *

The WHO also states that “Employers and managers who put in place workplace initiatives to promote mental health and to support employees who have mental disorders see gains not only in the health of their employees but also in their productivity at work.”

There’s no doubt that with each year that passes, we’re breaking down the stigma that surrounds mental illness, bit by bit. 

In Canada, campaigns and advocacy by groups like SickNotWeak, Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative and the Partners for Mental Health “Not Myself Today” campaign  — as well as stories shared by high-profile people such as Michael Landsberg (sports journalist), Clara Hughes (Olympian athlete) and Howie Mandel (comedian/actor) — are helping to promote mental health, raise awareness about mental illness and spread the message that there is no more shame in having a mental illness than a physical one. * *

Over the past few years, I’ve seen an uptake in mental wellness initiatives being introduced into workplaces. 

For example, the Mental Health Commission of Canada created The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. It’s been incorporated into Canada’s federal public sector and other organizations across the country. Other workplaces have also incorporated their own wellness strategies.

This is notable progress, to be celebrated.

But there is still room to improve.

I’ve been open in my workplace about my challenges with depression, and more recently with bipolar II.  I’m happy to report that people have been very receptive, accepting, sympathetic …

But I still see discrepancies in how people who are off work for physical vs mental health reasons are treated. 

When someone is off work for appendicitis, cancer treatment, broken leg, an operation, a card is circulated in the office, offering best wishes and get well messages. If they are off for an extended amount of time, the social committee or someone in the office will organize a gift of flowers or basket of goodies to send to the person for a “pick me up” while they are recovering.

Yet when someone is off on stress leave, or for a non-disclosed reason (which most people assume is a mental health issue) or for a disclosed mental health issue, there’s rarely a card, gift basket, phone calls or social media messages offering get well wishes. 

Too often, there’s silence.

Too often, time off for mental health reasons becomes the elephant in the office.

More and more is being done to address mental health at the organizational level. I’m happy to see this and look forward to seeing this kind of work expand further.  

But I’ll know that breaking down stigma in the workplace has truly made strides when I see a card circulating (or receive one myself) for needing time off for mental health reasons.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

* Source:

** Author note: I hope one day soon there won’t be “mental” vs “physical” descriptors when discussing illness. That we won’t, for example, call depression a mental health issue and diabetes a physical health issue. That they will both simply be health issues or illnesses, period.