Tackling mental health in the workplace


By Natalie Paddon

A janitor at a Hannon North facility opts to break up his workday into chunks.

He’ll clean for an hour or so at the plaza that houses the headquarters for the Rainbow’s End Community Development Corporation, before taking a break to put on some coffee and read the newspaper.

It’s not a routine that would work for all employers, but these types of allowances for workers are often made by the charitable group.

“He does a great job for us,” says executive director Dave Williams. “It’s low pressure … he feels comfortable here.”

Established in 1997, Rainbow’s End is a charity running small social enterprises — such as property maintenance, food services and sewing work — that provide employment for people with mental health or addiction challenges.

It started as a hospital program affiliated with St. Joseph’s Healthcare before undergoing a transition in 2010. Now it’s focused on providing job training to these employees, who are paid at least minimum wage, Williams says.

“Everybody gets paid to do the kind of job that you would do in any business. I don’t expect any less from my team members than I would expect from any other business out there.”

According to a report from non-partisan group CivicAction, it’s estimated that more than 1.5 million people in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area’s workforce have experienced a mental health issue. That is one in two people.

Over the next decade, mental health issues in the area’s labour force could result in close to $17 billion in lost productivity because of workers who are absent, sick or quit, according to CivicAction.

Excluding this crop of workers means employers would miss out on important skills and attitudes that contribute to workplaces in positive ways, Williams says.

But it is also costly to support individuals through the Ontario Disability Support Program and other resources when they would rather be working, he adds.

“We can’t afford not to give (these workers) an opportunity to get back into the workforce.”

Many of the employees who work for one of the businesses at Rainbow’s End are re-entering the workforce after some time away. About half of the staff are part-time as they gradually reacquaint themselves with working.

“For some people it’s a confidence builder,” Williams says, noting they work around employees’ medical and support appointments and skill sets.

“You’re not going to be firing on all cylinders if you’ve been off for two years or three years. It’s that accommodation of their needs that helps them get back into work before they go to proper full-time.”

When Joe Boase started working at Rainbow’s End in May 2014, he had been out of the workforce following a bout of depression. He was living off Ontario Works when he started working with an employment counsellor to see what options were available to help him transition back. After finding out about a job in lawn maintenance and driving at Rainbow’s End, Boase went in for an interview and started working there a couple of days a week.

It meant he’d started to rebuild his life.

“That was kind of the first step to get back into society: get a job. For me, that was a big step.”

Since then, he’s started working at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton in food services, but has continued to stay on working for the charity one day a week. He says he hasn’t told the hospital about his depression and anxiety, but feels being open about it in this article is worth risking any stigma.

At Rainbow’s End, it’s understood that all workers have faced mental health issues.

“I’ve realized it’s kind of like an anchor,” Boase says. “If everything else falls apart, I’ve still got Rainbow’s End.”

PATH Employment Services is another local nonprofit that helps people transition back into the workplace. When the agency started in 1972, it focused on assisting those with physical disabilities, but as society’s recognition of mental health issues has changed, so has PATH’s mandate.

“Just because somebody has a physical disability doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have mental illness,” says executive director Brad Spencer.

At the nonprofit’s employment resource centre, people can use computers to write resumés, check emails and apply to jobs online. The resource room receives about 10,000 visits a year. Visitors can also sign up for a range of services, from workshops to group sessions.

Employment co-ordinators help these folks discover what jobs might be the best fit, and work with employers to figure out how they might get into these fields.

“Our success comes from encouraging people to position themselves well, to do well in the hidden job market,” Spencer says.

Employers are often willing to take recommendations from PATH about candidates who have connected with the centre, he adds.

In addition to helping them find employment, staff work with clients on the issue of disability disclosure — both physical and mental — once they enter the workplace.

PATH’s workshop and one-on-one counselling boil down the issue to pro-and-con lists about what’s best in a given situation.

“While it’s getting better, there’s still a huge stigma with mental illness,” says Spencer.

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