We kickstarted the new year with our January meeting on “Mental Health at the workplace”, across 9 Canadian cities. 1 in 5 Canadian have suffered from mental illnesses at some point in their lives, yet 50% of Canadians do not seek mental help due to stigma associated with it.
“How are you today?”. How many times have you given the same old answers to this frequently asked question: “…OK, good, fine…”? Even when you felt sad, angry or exasperated… Most of us do not feel comfortable with expressing how we really feel in our professional and personal lives because of our fears of being judged, of not being understood, or that it could compromise how our colleagues see our work.
But it is important to acknowledge and rightly express how we feel. It is important to talk about mental health, as the attendees from the Ottawa meeting pointed out- “There is no health without mental health”. While mental issue can happen in 1 person every 5, mental health happens in 5 people on 5. It is important to tackle the issues at their root cause, be it familial, personal or even professional.
Attendees from Quebec pointed out that lack of internal support plays a big role in the mental challenges rampant in the scientific community. It was unanimously agreed that uncertainty around the current roles and the future goals, unmet expectations at work, lack of proper credit and issues around unresolved conflicts at work commonly cause mental stress in academia and beyond. It was noted that men suffer from challenges equally, or sometimes even worse, as they tend to be less vocal about these issues.
Moreover, it was felt that a little stress in academia is considered normal. One of the attendees admitted to being denied counselling by the university counselor, as her mental health condition was “not serious”. However, preservation and promotion of mental health and early diagnosis of mental illness is crucial as the Ottawa attendees pointed out; since it often leads to early identification and treatment, before the condition becomes serious or difficult to treat. To be able to identify the early risk factors that affect our daily life emotions, psychological and social well-being can have a positive effect on our health and wellness.
Attendees from Toronto talked about the cultural impact on mental health.
In Canada, people are more open for instance to meet for a coffee and give advices, but they are still quite private when it comes to feelings. Interestingly, it was discussed that compared to other countries, were mental health and mental issues are seen as a taboo, in Canada people can be less “suspicious” and are more open to give more the benefit of the doubt, when something is not right.
Toronto attendees also noticed that advertisement regarding mental health is increasing in the city, especially along the subway line where a number of suicides happens every year.
· Educate yourself: Learn more about the importance and basis of Mental Health. The lack of understanding of what mental illness is, leaves people in the dark. We can build capacity to listen and consequently to help. There are standardized online and offline courses and most of the time are accessible for leaders or managers, sometimes free of cost. For instance, one of the most famous courses at Harvard University is “Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness”.
· Speak up! For yourself and for others. Practice empathy. The trend is catching on the social media platforms for all the right reasons, and more people are taking it in these platforms to advocate for themselves and others. The stigma that used to be associated with mental health has dramatically diminished over the years but much needs to be done still. It is OK to talk about mental illness and there is no shame in seeking help. Most of the Canadian provinces offer social services (helpline: 811).
· Set your own expectations. Organize. Burnouts are real. Scientists are often self-motivated and tend to work longer hours even without any pressure from their superiors. However, a work-life balance is not a myth. “Me time” is important. Set strict work boundaries, taking time out for our personal lives and loved ones.
· Work out on your mental health. Do what makes you happy and healthy. Invest yourself in physical and mental workouts. For instance, mindfulness, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, along with moderate physical exercises are all proven beneficial in tackling various mental challenges. There is an endless supply of resources that can help if you are willing to seek out.
Equal Contributions from IWS Leaders: Clotilde, Giulia, Pooja Shree, and Shanda