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Mental Illness in the Workplace

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Work is important to our well-being. In addition to the income it brings, it can be a big part of our identity, how we understand our skills, and a way to contribute to something bigger. However, a mental illness can have a big impact on the way we work.

What are mental illnesses?

Mental illnesses are health problems that affect the way we think about ourselves, relate to others, and interact with the world around us. They affect our thoughts, feelings, abilities and behaviours. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses.

Mental illnesses are more likely to come up during times of stress or uncertainty, which can be part of many people’s jobs. However, life stress outside of work can also affect mental health, which may then affect a person at work.

It’s important to understand that mental illnesses are real illnesses. Like other illnesses, such as diabetes or asthma, most mental illnesses are episodic. That means people have periods when they are well and productive, as well as periods when they are unwell and overall functioning is low.

How do mental illnesses impact workers and workplaces?

People who experience a mental illness may doubt their abilities or appear less confident. A person may have a hard time concentrating, learning, and making decisions. Symptoms of a mental illness may feed much bigger thoughts. For example, someone who can’t concentrate may then also think that they can’t do their job well or worry about losing their job. It’s easy to see how these changes affect work performance.

Mental illnesses can also have a big effect on relationships. People who experience a mental illness may withdraw from others, act in unexpected ways, take a lot of time off, or appear less productive than usual. This can strain relationships with supervisors and co-workers.

Mental illnesses cost Canadian employers billions of dollars in absenteeism or sick days, presenteeism (coming to work, even when the employee can’t work well), disability and other benefits, and lost productivity.

What can I do about it?

The good news is that mental illnesses are treatable. Early recognition of mental health problems, referrals to the right resources (such as Employee and Family Assistance Plans), and adequate treatment can help people get on the path to recovery and go back to their usual work quickly. Employees can and do reach their full potential when they have the right supports in their life, including those at their workplace. Some mental health problems in the workplace can also be prevented when organizations take steps to create mentally healthy workplaces for all employees.

Telling a supervisor or member of your workplace’s human resources team about a diagnosis of any health problem is called disclosure. In Canada, the law says that you don’t have to tell your employers what is causing a disability. You do need to say that you’re experiencing health challenges and you have to describe what you need to work well. Your employer may need information from your health care provider around your abilities and difficulties, but they don’t need your diagnosis.

There are risks and benefits to disclosing your experience of a mental illness. If you do disclose, you and your supervisor may figure out strategies that help you stay at work. For example, you may change the way you complete tasks or change the tasks you do. These strategies are also called accommodations. By law, workplaces have to try to look at reasonable accommodations for anyone who experiences a disability, including a mental illness. Disclosing may help other people in your workplace understand any changes or difficulties that they’ve noticed.

On the other hand, disclosing can lead to stigma or discrimination. Unfortunately, being open about a mental illness can impact a person’s position at a workplace or their ability to find a new job. There are laws to prevent this kind of discrimination, but it can still happen. Workplaces have different attitudes and cultures, so everyone will have different experiences. However, it’s best to think through all the options before you make a decision.

Decisions around staying at work or taking time off are influenced by many different factors, including the nature and severity of the illness and how the illness affects your abilities to work. Ultimately, the choice should be between you, your care team, and your employer. Some people benefit from time off with a gradual return to work. Others may decide to work fewer hours. Some may stay at their current working hours. Staying connected to work can be helpful during recovery. It can be a place to contribute your skills, build social connections, contribute to something bigger, and earn a paycheque. A job can be part of how you see yourself. Talk with your care team for ideas and strategies that support your work goals.

Remember to the advantage of services through your employee benefits. Employee and Family Assistance Plans and your health plan can help you find and access services in your community.

How can I help a co-worker?

Different mental illnesses have different symptoms, and people experience the same mental illness in very different ways. Some people may hide their symptoms, and some people may work well despite symptoms. If you’ve noticed changes and are concerned about a co-worker, it’s best to express concern without making assumptions.

If a co-worker is experiencing a mental illness, it’s best to let them decide what and how much they tell others in the workplace. However, you can still offer support. Let your co-worker know that you’re there to listen without judgement, and make your co-worker feel like they’re still part of the team. Here are more tips for supporting a co-worker:

  • Ask how you can help, and respect your co-worker’s wishes.
  • Continue to include your co-worker in the workplace’s usual activities.
  • Depending on your relationship, you can still keep in touch with a co-worker who takes time off.
  • When a co-worker returns to work after time off due to a mental illness, make them feel welcome and appreciated. Saying nothing because you’re worried about saying the wrong thing can make your co-worker feel worse.
  • Advocate for healthy workplaces. Many wellness strategies are low-cost or no-cost, but they can still improve everyone’s well-being and build inclusive spaces. Visit the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Works resource at www.mentalhealthworks.ca for ideas and strategies.

Do you need more help?

Contact Mental Health Works or a community organization like the Canadian Mental Health Association to learn more about support and resources in your area.

Founded in 1918, The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is a national charity that helps maintain and improve mental health for all Canadians. As the nation-wide leader and champion for mental health, CMHA helps people access the community resources they need to build resilience and support recovery from mental illness.

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Sheryl Wedderburn

Courtice, Ontario – Chief Executive Officer/Officer of the Board

Sheryl Wedderburn is the Chief Executive Officer at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Durham. Since her appointment in 2021 she has led the organization through innovative key milestones. The transformation and modernization of housing programs for people with serious mental illness; attaining Accreditation with exemplary standing and raising the profile of the organization within the mental health and addictions sector by co-partnering with lead service providers to support an integrated care model for people living with Schizophrenia. Sheryl has a proven track record in removing barriers between providers and designing client-centred systems while championing the expansion of the traditional catchment areas moving towards equitable access to care. The former CEO and Principal Consultant for Bernard Consultancy, Sheryl has worked dutifully with Chief Executive Officers and Chief Operating Officers, inspiring them to cultivate inventive strategic plans, conducting quality-driven operational reviews and advancing the development, mentorship and successioning of their leadership teams. As a seasoned Governor, Sheryl has served on various Boards since 1986, from hospital sector to community. In addition to her role as Officer of the esteemed CMHA Durham Board of Directors, she serves on the Board of the Alzheimer Society Durham Region, where she advocates for enhanced services to meet the growing diverse needs of people living with Alzheimer and associated dementias. She is the Founding President for JCAN, a registered not-for-profit charity serving the Afro-Caribbean population. A life-long learner, Sheryl holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Health Sciences and Certified Health Executive designation from the Canadian College of Health Leaders. Past cross-appointments include Adjunct Faculty for the Nursing Degree Program at University of Toronto and Ontario Tech University.

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Kerrie Wriker

Colborne, Ontario – Chief Operating Officer/Board Secretary

Kerrie has over 20 years of experience working in the community-based mental health and addictions sector and has held various leadership roles throughout her career. She attained formal education in Recreation and Leadership (Ontario Tech University), Professional Management (York University), and Harm Reduction. She is also a Green Belt in leading process improvement methodology Lean Six Sigma and holds a Change Management Practitioner certification. In her current role as CMHA Durham’s Chief Operating Officer, she effectively fulfills layered reporting obligations to numerous levels of government and ensures all services are integrated, planned, delivered, and evaluated in accordance with professional standards.
As a caregiver to a loved one with a severe mental disorder, Kerrie is a firm believer that connected and caring communities promote wellness. To that end, Kerrie volunteers as a panel member with the Ontario Caregiver Organization, member of an Advisory Board within her township, and is a Board Trustee with CMHA National Pension Plan in addition to her work with CMHA Durham.

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Sarah Moore

Ajax, Ontario – Board Member

Sarah is an accessibility advocate with a passion for cultivating inclusion, standing up to stigma, and breaking down barriers alongside people with visible and invisible disabilities. She is an Accredited Municipal Professional with more than 15 years of local government experience. Her portfolio includes specialties in public administration, accessibility compliance, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as well as volunteer management. Sarah is an Honours graduate of the University of Toronto and obtained a certificate in Accessibility Practices from Toronto Metropolitan University. With both a personal and professional connection to mental health, supporting family members, friends, and colleagues with mood disorders, Sarah is eager to contribute to the promotion and enhancement of positive mental health within the Region as a member of the CMHA Durham Board of Directors. Outside of work, Sarah’s hobbies and interests include film, language studies (French and Spanish), baking, and spoiling Riley, her Shih-Tzu.

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Nicole Seymour

Whitby, Ontario – Board Member

Nicole Seymour is currently the Chief Regulatory and Compliance Officer for a global property and casualty insurance organization. She has over 20 years of regulatory compliance experience in the insurance and financial industries and has held Chief Compliance Roles at insurers, mutual fund dealers, and life insurance MGAs. Throughout her career, Nicole has implemented successful compliance and regulatory risk management programs at multiple institutions. Continuously committed to her professional development, she holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Waterloo and has recently completed the Cambridge Business Sustainability Management Certificate and the Certificate in Regulatory Compliance and Legal Risk Management for Financial Institutions from Osgoode Hall. Nicole lives in Whitby with her husband and four children. She enjoys traveling and being a hockey/soccer mom.

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Katie Cosway

Courtice, Ontario – Board Member

Over the past 15 years, Katie has dedicated her career to guiding organizations to build strong cultures that create inclusive and successful business outcomes. After completing her Honours BA at McMaster University and a post-graduate certificate in Human Resources at Durham College, Katie spent 10 years in organizational and career management consulting, delivering services across North America. She later took on a leadership role within the energy sector, where she focused on learning and development to support the growing demands of that industry. A certified Change Management Practitioner and Human Resources Leader (CHRL), Katie also has experience serving on a non-profit board within the financial sector and brings a governance/policy strength that has resulted in increased performance of the teams and projects she’s worked on. Growing up in Durham Region, and currently residing in Courtice with her family, Katie has a deep appreciation for community services such as the ones provided by CMHA Durham.

Jason Langley

Clarington, Ontario – Board Member

Jason is a Senior Strategy & Innovation leader at a large North American financial institution. With a cross border mandate, Jason has built a brand rooted in strategic thought leadership and has a track record of driving multi-dimensional transformation focused on growth and the customer experience. Jason is passionate about coaching and developing future leaders and is a staunch advocate for mental health in both his professional and personal life. He holds both an MBA and Certificate in Responsible Leadership from Queen’s University, a Bachelor of Commerce from Ontario Tech University, and is a Certified Change Management Practitioner. Having grown up in Oshawa, Jason now lives in Clarington with his wife and daughter. In his spare time, he enjoys being outdoors and is an avid fisherman.

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Duncan Kerr

Brooklin, Ontario – Board Member

Duncan Kerr is an experienced executive currently serving as the Director of Sustainability and Training with Toronto Hydro. He is responsible for developing and managing short- and long-term sustainability, training, and workforce skills development strategies, as well as directing and managing the organization’s sustainability and training systems, processes, and programs. Duncan also drives change in the pursuit of compliance and continual improvement of environment, social, and governance (ESG).  Prior to Toronto Hydro, Duncan held professional and leadership roles in both health and safety and operations at General Motors in Canada, the United States, and Australia. His impact is supported by a diverse education, including a Bachelor of Kinesiology from McMaster University, a Master of Science in Biomechanics from the University of Guelph, and a Master of Business Administration from Wayne State University.  He is also a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) and an Environmental Professional (EP). Duncan has lived in Brooklin for the last 15 years, with his wife of over 20 years and their two sons.

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Elizabeth McSavaney

Pickering, Ontario – Board Member

Elizabeth is currently a Human Resources (HR) Executive for a leading global insurance organization.  Elizabeth has obtained her Canadian Human Resources Leader (CHRL) designation and carries a certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution from the University of Windsor. Over the course of her career, she has led teams in both the private and public sectors across North America.  She has driven complex transformational change projects in corporate and manufacturing environments and has worked in a variety of HR disciplines. In addition to her HR qualifications, Elizabeth has served as a professor at Algonquin College’s School of Business. Beyond work, Elizabeth is a passionate health advocate, with a Bachelor of Science (Honors) in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. She keenly understands the value that focused strategies can bring to the health outcomes of individuals, organizations, and the broader community. When Elizabeth is not at work she enjoys CrossFit, running, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

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Earlene Worrall

Blackstock, Ontario – Board Member

Earlene seeks to leverage her knowledge and skills in ways that make a meaningful difference for others, both professionally and personally. With expertise in brand-building, marketing, and strategy, she has spent the last fourteen years working with healthcare clients in a trusted advisor role to help them tackle their toughest strategic challenges. As a Partner with Ipsos Healthcare Advisory, Earlene deeply understands the underlying drivers of behaviour, uncovers the insights that matter, and unfailingly pulls through to actionable strategy – ultimately helping to improve the lived experience of patients, their loved ones, and the healthcare providers who treat them. Earlene is equally committed to contributing to her community. Her volunteer roles over the past two decades have spanned her interests in the environment, the arts, social services, and healthcare. Earlene holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University. She and her husband live in Blackstock.

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Melissa Beaucaire

Oshawa, Ontario – Board Member

Melissa has a rich background in the non-profit sector with more than 25 years of experience. Tapping into her formal education in Sociology (BA, University of Ottawa) and Early Childhood Education (Honours Diploma, Algonquin College), she is currently a Manager for Children’s Services in the Durham Region. Melissa has also previously served on the board of non-profit organizations as secretary and treasurer. A lifelong learner, Melissa has prioritized her professional development in the areas of mental health, diversity, special needs, addiction, management, and leadership. She recognizes the importance of the work that CMHA Durham does to provide services for the community and those living with mental health challenges, and she is honoured to support the mission. Besides Melissa’s personal and professional pursuits, family is integral to her life. Melissa and her family are long-time residents of the Durham Region. 

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Jim Hunt

Nestleton, Ontario – Board Member

Jim Hunt is a retired management professional, whose career touched many essential business operations, from manufacturing to customer satisfaction. He is an outside-the-box thinker with a Mathematics degree from the University of Waterloo (whose handbook he co-authored). An effective problem solver, Jim was one of a few people in North America to successfully manage the implementation of operation scheduling software. Jim also served on the boards and advisory committees of several noteworthy organizations, including Sir Sandford Fleming College and the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario, where he was a board member for nine years. Jim’s investment in accessible and effective mental health care is inspired by the experiences of his loved ones who live with mental disorders. As a resident of Scugog, Jim’s work with CMHA Durham is a testament to his commitment to ensuring care is available to those in his community who need it most.

Dave Wheeler

Whitby, Ontario – Board Chair

Dave Wheeler is a passionate advocate for mental health, and a trusted advisor to CMHA Durham. He has brought his empathetic and effective approach to professional and organizational advancement to roles at several notable companies, including his current position as senior manager of sales and operations at one of Canada’s leading financial institutions. Dave’s expertise is backed by a Master of Business Administration from Queens University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from York University. As CMHA Durham Board Chair, Dave effectively develops strong relationships with stakeholders, while ensuring the appropriate processes are in place to monitor and measure the organization’s performance and efficacy outcomes. Beyond his professional endeavours, Dave enjoys travelling, golf, hockey, baseball, running, and coaching sports.

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Preya Singh-Cushnie

Ajax, Ontario – Board Member

Preya Singh-Cushnie is deeply committed to making a positive impact and has accumulated more than 23 years of leadership experience across various financial services organizations, from global giants to mid-sized firms, both internationally and domestically. She currently holds a senior leadership role at the Ontario Medical Association, overseeing the insurance division serving 45,000 physicians in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. In addition to her insurance responsibilities, Preya actively supports the association’s advocacy efforts, contributing to physician and patient care initiatives.

Preya approaches leadership with a focus on empathy, transparency, and a clear sense of purpose. She has a knack for facilitating positive changes by collaborating effectively with internal and external partners, committees, and the OMA Insurance Board to advance the organization’s programs and advocacy work. Preya is also a Licensed Life Insurance Agent and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from York University.

Her dedication extends to promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, with a special focus on supporting mental wellness initiatives. This commitment has led her to serve as a Director and Treasurer for CMHA Durham. Before her involvement with CMHA Durham, Preya spent four years as a member and Vice Chair of the Town of Ajax Diversity and Community Engagement Committee.