Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fighting Mental Health Dragons

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

The Clerk of the Privy Council recently released the 22nd Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. Which, as everyone else has noted, we should all read.

One of the three priorities for the coming year is mental health: "building a healthy, respectful and supportive work environment." I'm glad that it's being flagged as a public-service wide issue. The statistics and figures are jarring. But the change will come at the person-to-person level, through empathy with what individuals experience — or at least, understanding that what others experience will not, cannot, and should not match what you experience.

Reasonable orders

In the movie How to Train Your Dragon, there’s a scene where Gobber (a big, burly viking) tells the protagonist, Hiccup (the only non-big, non-burly viking), “If you ever want to get out there to fight dragons, you need to stop all... this.”

“But you just pointed to all of me.”

He can't follow that advice, and it's crazy to ask him to.

People see the world in different ways. People experience the events and environment of the workplace in different ways. Susan Cain’s book Quiet argues that modern Western culture — including our workplaces — is built around an ideal of extroverted people. Demographic divides have long played a role in success, and people tend to hire people that look and think like them. Mental health is definitely not yet fully understood or appreciated in the workplace.

In How to Train Your Dragon, the status ladder was created by big, burly vikings for big, burly vikings. Likewise, certain types of people have built our institutions in their image.

In the workplace, we run programs, develop internal policies, restructure organizations, navigate relationships, manage employees, and provide feedback and advice. There are times when we do these things fairly and constructively. And then there are other times, when our demands sound to the recipients like “Y’know, it’d be great if you were a different person altogether.”

Telling someone with interpersonal anxiety to speak up more in meetings. Suggesting that women adopt male stereotypes to get ahead in their career (hat tip to Suzanne Huggins for a great post). Telling someone with ADHD to focus. (And it doesn't even need to be telling. Norms and culture do the job.)

"Stop all... this."

Over the last few years I've had more and more conversations with people that are on the short end of a workplace built for the average, not the distribution, of people and personalities. It does not surprise me that mental health is the problem it is today, and it will require a massive leap forward on all of our parts to improve. And we need to do it.

Imagine someone telling you that to be a public servant, to respond to that calling, “You need to stop all… this,” and pointing to your whole life.

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