Office of the Ombud for Mental Health: Annual Report to the Deputy Minister—2020 to 2021

Message from the former Ombudsman for Mental Health: André Latreille

André Latreille

Dear Mr. Matthews,

I’m very honoured to convey my sincere thanks, one last time, to you and Mr. Vandergrift for your continued support, which has helped the Office of the Ombud of Mental Health (OOMH) to carry out its mandate. When you receive this report, it will have been 6 months since I left the public service. During that time, I have had an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the changes that continue to shape our workplaces and bring us closer to making them places where the mental health of all employees is protected.

The past year was difficult for many of us, to say the least. Our collective mental health is under strain as we continue to go through various phases of stress and anxiety that force each and every one of us to challenge the way we think, work and connect with co workers and our loved ones.

As I reflect on the OOMH’s journey, I am proud that we have established a meaningful dialogue within the organization about mental health and well-being in the workplace. With firmly held beliefs and the courage of its convictions, the OOMH has laid a solid foundation and created a historic legacy that we continue to leverage and safeguard today as an organization.

In 2017, the organization made a pioneering decision when it appointed the first Ombudsman for Mental Health in the Government of Canada. This created the expectation that issues affecting the mental health of our employees would be dealt with. Getting everyone to embrace a people first vision enabled us to resist the stigma attached to mental health and better understand how to navigate through the differences between maintaining good mental health and having to live with a mental illness in the workplace. This was a great first step in increasing our organization’s acceptance and resiliency capacity. Every time, my office initiated a dialogue on mental health, it raised awareness and created a greater feeling of normalcy around having mental health conversations in the workplace. Our being first also meant that we paved the way for other organizational Ombuds to be appointed in the Government of Canada and mobilized a community of now 24 organizational Ombuds to share their experiences and bring their observations to the attention of the central agencies. Together we continue to combat the lingering stigma associated with mental health, one conversation at a time.

Guided by the principles of independence, confidentiality, impartiality and informality and introducing the concept of a safe space as a central part of our operations, the OOMH continues to be available to all employees and encourages them to come forward with issues affecting their mental health. Employees placed their trust in my office and became key drivers of the success we’ve had. Discussing their concerns has helped me turn the spotlight on actual workplace issues that are barriers to growth, innovation and self-empowerment. What the employees shared with us was incorporated into 16 recommendations for improving our employees’ individual and collective experience in the workplace. For that, I am grateful.

After 4 years of service and thousands of confidential consultations with employees from all corners of the organization, we found in our analysis of those collected stories that there are recurring trends affecting employees. The lack of psychological support in the workplace is still a current issue in some areas of the organization. Unfortunately, many employees still find themselves in situations that prevent them from coming forward: they do not feel safe to express themselves freely and fear reprisals. It also causes them to decide to leave the organization as a coping mechanism. We have to do a better job of providing leadership for people. As we move towards exercising a leadership role, we must be ready and willing to accept that this role comes with significant people management responsibilities.

Too often, I have heard about issues related to lack of civility and respect in the workplace. The failure, in some cases, to provide employees with a psychologically safe workplace has affected not only our employees’ mental health, but also their dignity as individuals. It is rarely just 1 employee who is suffering. We can be more self-aware as people leaders.

Having clear expectations from our leaders is one of the key contributing factors to a healthy organization. As individuals, dealing with heavy workloads, ongoing changes and additional pressures on our ability to do our jobs because of the pandemic, we can sometimes lose sight of what a people-first vision means. We need to be more mindful as people leaders of our impact on others, especially our positive impact. The pandemic-related challenges facing our organization not only place demands on our employees in ways we have never seen before, but also showcase our ability as an organization to provide support for Canadians in extraordinary ways. Having heard the stories of many unsung heroes in all corners of the organization, I believe it is important to recognize the continuing efforts of our organization and our people leaders who have provided considerable support towards ensuring the mental health of our employees during a global health crisis that has proven to be stubborn and persistent. During the last year alone, in addition to individual consultations, I had the privilege of talking with many employees and leaders during virtual town halls, virtual coffee breaks and fireside chats, and during our own Informal Fridays with the Ombudsman. Leaders joined in to share success stories about how they had created a more supportive and flexible work environment. Witnessing and sharing these promising practices sends a strong message—that we are part of an organization that cares and that we are not alone. Our department can be proud.

As these positive practices bring us closer together, we cannot overlook the fact that not everyone feels included in the workplace. The continuing work on the diversity and inclusion front, including the recent call to action from the Clerk of the Privy Council, is making a significant contribution to ensuring that we have a stronger voice as a group, include everybody and leave no one behind. We need to make our workplace a safe space that empowers our employees to speak up when they see or face discrimination.

Looking at where we are today and the work that my office has achieved over the years, I know it has had a positive impact on our collective emotional intelligence. As we prepare to go back to work in our offices following the pandemic, it will be vitally important for us as individuals and as an organization to continue to enhance our leadership skill sets to help create the workplace of tomorrow. Always remember to be curious, show empathy, actively listen in the moment and invest time in building trust.

In closing, I would like to say to my past and current team members that what we achieved during these past 4 years was made possible because you believed the office was making a difference in the life of so many employees. And it truly does! Thank you.

André

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.”

Montreal Habs

Trends and observations overview: Focus areas

Psychological support

“If you’ve created a work culture where vulnerability isn’t okay, you’ve also created a culture where innovation and creativity aren’t okay.”

Brené Brown

Since the OOMH was established, issues pertaining to a lack of psychological support have been identified as a concern for many. This year, lack of psychological support issues have been the foremost reason for the OOMH’s confidential client consultations, with almost a quarter of clients citing these issues as their main reason for seeking a consultation. Psychological support is 1 of the 13 workplace psychosocial factors outlined in the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, on which the Federal Public Service Workplace Mental Health Strategy is based. Psychological support in the workplace means that managers and employees are supportive of all mental health concerns and respond appropriately as needed, whether the mental health concerns are the result of workplace pressures, stressors and anxieties or lack of civility and respect in the workplace or have to do with employees living with mental illness.

After such a truly unprecedented year in which the global COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our entire way of life and transformed how and where we work practically overnight, we saw more employees coming forward to seek psychological support, and more employees requiring a higher level of psychological support.

Our office met with hundreds of individuals this past year, who talked to us about a number of these and other related problems, such as:

  • feelings of isolation
  • fear and anxiety
  • the need for understanding and flexibility from their managers
  • difficulty juggling work and domestic responsibilities, to name but a few

This year, as Ombudsman for Mental Health, I often sent out messages about “not business as usual” and stressing the importance of managing with flexibility and removing barriers to allow employees to adjust to the psychological impact of a pandemic-induced shutdown of operations and disruptions to day-to-day life. Often, these types of honest conversations had a positive influence on those situations.

Even under regular, non-pandemic conditions, it is still vitally important to provide employees with psychological support in order to ensure the long-term success and viability of any organization nowadays. Optimum productivity for an organization is achieved directly through its people, and this has been our motto since day 1. There are now copious amounts of research (for example, the landmark Google study on psychological safety in the workplace) showing that when there is psychological support provided in an organization, employees feel a greater attachment and commitment to their jobs, have greater job satisfaction, are more involved in their work, and achieve better job performance. Conversely, when there is a lack psychological support, we see:

  • higher levels of absenteeism
  • presenteeism
  • conflict and turnover
  • lost productivity
  • increased costs and higher risks of accidents
  • incidents and injuries

Over the years, we have noticed increased awareness of the critical importance of mental health in the workplace as more employees and managers incorporate mental health into their day-to-day work. Starting last year, our office began to see a growing number of managers and employees looking for and implementing new and innovative ways to introduce more advanced psychological support into their workplace environments. This would also explain the significant increase in the number of branch town halls and other all-staff presentations that our office held in the past year. These presentations, with their informative participant discussions and exchanges, fuel a very positive and reassuring trend in our organization towards increased awareness and promotion of psychological health and safety in the workplace.

76% of respondents consider their workplace to be psychologically healthy (plus 8% compared with the public service overall); an 18% increase since 2017.

So as we look ahead to the future, after the immensely challenging and potentially transformative year we have all had, it will be critically and fundamentally important that we continue supporting one another by adopting the core attributes that underlie every healthy, thriving organization: compassion, kindness and empathy.

Civility and respect

“Civility lifts people. We’ll get people to give more and function at their best if we’re civil. Incivility chips away at people and their performance. Individually, we need to ask ourselves who we want to be.”

Christine Porath, PhD, in her TED Talk
Why Being Respectful to Your Co-Workers Is Good for Business

Incivility is defined as disrespectful or rude behaviour, including mocking or belittling someone, teasing them in ways that hurt, telling offensive jokes or texting in meetings. What is offensive to one person may be perfectly acceptable to others; so steering clear of uncivil behaviour is about applying The Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” To do that, we have to be curious about our co workers and their needs. We have to get better at listening with kindness and openness.

Over the years, I’ve known too many employees who have suffered, to some degree, from the effects of a lack of civility and respect in their relationship with a direct supervisor or, less frequently, with a co worker. Employees who consulted us described toxic work environments characterized by:

  • rude
  • humiliating
  • condescending
  • controlling
  • inappropriate
  • insensitive and/or demeaning behaviour

Some employees and their co-workers have felt shamed into silence and were afraid of reprisals if they spoke up.

Incivility, left unchecked, can lead to discrimination, bullying, harassment and even violence; and it takes great personal courage to call it out, especially in an environment where one might feel unsafe. The survey conducted by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2018, entitled Interpersonal Relationshipsfootnote 1 found that the likelihood of incivility among co-workers increases if there is incivility in the supervisor-employee relationship. In other words, when management behaves uncivilly towards employees, employees are more likely to be uncivil towards their co-workers. Management holds the key to creating a more civil and respectful work environment. It must lead by example and be civil at all times, and call out incivility when it witnesses it, so that others feel safe to do so, as well.

Examples of incivility could include talking behind someone’s back, taking credit for the work done by someone who reports to you, overly frequent progress checks, consistently failing to comply with set work hours and not saying please or thank you. These uncivil behaviours are often distressing to employees because they can be perceived as a lack of trust on the part of management and can hamper their ability to get the job done. We know that these types of situations erode vertical trust and have a negative impact on both employees and the organization. A key finding in the office’s survey 1 was that a lack of vertical trust is the strongest predictor of psychological distress in the workplace where psychological distress is described as “suffering characterized by symptoms of depression (for example, loss of interest and feelings of sadness and hopelessness) and anxiety (for example, restlessness, and feeling tense).footnote 2 According to the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada research (PDF, 1173KB), the cost of incivility is tangible. It can often be found in hours spent complaining or listening to complainants, and hours spent on conflict resolution, all of which reduce the amount of time spent in the office.

Fortunately, the needle is moving in the right direction, since it was reported in the 2020 Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) results that 90% of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) respondents said they were treated with respect by their department, a 14% increase since the 2008 results. However, we can’t rest on our laurels; we must continue to set the right conditions for creating a strong culture that fosters a psychologically safe workplace for everyone.

Leadership and clear expectations

Leadership and clear expectations continue to be a frequently discussed topic in confidential meetings. The following are the main issues raised:

  • a lack of vertical communication of information related to expectations of roles, responsibilities and tasks
    • this can lead to conflict, inefficiencies and unrealistic expectations with respect to the workload
  • unfair or improperly managed performance appraisals
  • a lack of training or support to increase the likelihood of good performance
  • a lack of information about changes or decisions or the reasons for them

Effective leadership is about clear objectives and ongoing support. In other words, employees who benefit from such leadership know what they have to do and how their work contributes to the proper functioning of the organization. They are informed about changes that concern them within a reasonable period of time and understand the merits of those changes. This helps to build positive morale, even during high stress periods, and establish trust-based relationships.footnote 3 It is a critically important element in all good change management.

The biggest challenge for new managers and executives is to strike a balance between work and their personal life.

Only 28% are able to deal with their workload during regular work hours

Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX), 2019

The more limited a person’s time, energy and resources, the less likely he or she will be to provide support for others.

Conversely, when objectives are not clearly stated, expectations are poorly communicated or not enough support is provided, employees are unable to contribute fully. Many people told us how this had negative consequences, such as:

  • confusion
  • frustration
  • work overload
  • decreased motivation
  • disengagement
  • reduced self-esteem
  • distrust
  • cynicism

Some said it affected their mental and physical health to the point where they had to take sick leave or quit their job. Ultimately, this is bound to adversely affect the organization’s health and performance.

  • 69% of employees feel that essential information flows effectively from senior management to staff (plus 19% since 2014)
  • 66% of employees feel that change is managed well within PSPC (plus 12% since 2019)
  • 75% said they have confidence in senior management, an increase of 10%, compared with 2019, and of 20%, compared with 2014
Public Service Employee Survey, 2020

However, to ensure good communication, it has to be two-way communication, because it’s a shared responsibility between the manager and employee. It’s to everyone’s benefit to take the time to get to know one another better and to find out each person’s expectations of the other. In cases of misunderstanding, each person should try to clarify things with the other person.

A number of employees told us they wanted to get constructive feedback and feel that they were making a difference within the organization. On the other hand, some managers felt they were not sufficiently equipped to provide such feedback or wanted to learn how to take mental health more effectively into account during the process. Several employees told us that they had been given unexpected negative feedback, particularly in performance appraisals. Learning that you are not meeting expectations without being given any notice or a clear explanation as to why can lower a person’s self-esteem and create undue stress, particularly when a term position is renewed or there is an opportunity for promotion.

Negative or positive feedback that is not supported by concrete examples and appropriate explanations can appear to be unfair. Some people told us that they felt their appraisal was being used against them or that, without adequate support, they were bound to fail. Managers must do their utmost to avoid creating such perceptions. Providing regular, clearly stated, open and fact-based feedback focusing on employee development can help to prevent this type of situation. Some people said they were afraid to challenge their performance appraisal for fear of reprisals, even though they found their appraisal unfair or unfounded or that it failed to take circumstances, job pressures or their mental health into account. This is a major source of stress and conflict.

We encourage managers and employees to use the department’s many resources to get support for discussions about their performance.

COVID-19: The importance of psychosocial support

“As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul COVID, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic.”

Adam Grant

Last year, in confidential consultations with employees, workplace issues were identified that were related in some way to the pandemic-induced lockdown situation. Employees talked to us about problems such as:

  • striking a work-life balance
  • feelings of isolation, uncertainty and anxiety
  • lack of management support
  • unclear messaging and expectations
  • lack of flexibility
  • uncertainty about 699 leave
  • loss of motivation and productivity
  • office equipment concerns
  • workload issues
  • fatigue

We soon saw an increasing rate of correlation between the COVID-19 related consultations and those identifying the need for psychological support as a further mitigating factor. Employees frequently mentioned a need for more and better psychological support in order to help manage their situations.

This is entirely consistent, of course, with both national and departmental mental health data demonstrating an aggregate deterioration in the state of Canadians’ mental health over the last year. For example, Statistics Canadafootnote 4 reported that approximately 38% of Canadians experienced feelings of loneliness or isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with those experiencing this impact significantly more likely to report a mental health issue, compared to those who did not, such as major depressive disorder (29% versus 6%), generalized anxiety disorder (25% versus 6%), and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (13% versus 2%).

PSPC’s Check-in Survey also provided some very telling results, for example:

  • 47% of respondents indicated that their mental health had declined since COVID-19
  • only 49% of respondents felt that they could leave work aside to take care of family responsibilities without feeling bad or guilty
  • 32% or respondents indicated that balancing work and personal life was causing them stress to a large or very large extent

A follow-up survey indicated the following:

  • 19% of respondents indicated that their mental health had further deteriorated, while 52% reported no change
  • only 12% reported excellent mental health, a decrease of 2% from Check-in Survey 1

As with any crisis, there are ample opportunities to learn, grow and evolve. In many ways, PSPC demonstrated its capacity to rise to the occasion by continuing to deliver in exemplary fashion on our multiple critical missions, while managing to keep our people safe. In fact, further results from the Check-in Survey demonstrate this success story quite vividly, for example:

  • 82% of respondents indicated that they had the resources and supports to continue teleworking safely
  • only 9% indicated having difficulty teleworking, a decrease of 18% from Survey 1

Our office is very proud of the efforts made by our employees and our organization, particularly in terms of technology, to quickly overcome obstacles associated with teleworking, including increasing VPN capacity and deploying Microsoft Teams as a virtual conferencing tool. We made great strides in dispelling some of the myths associated with teleworking. We want to acknowledge the considerable amount of feedback we received about managers and supervisors who were flexible about work schedules and work-life balance. Despite the pandemic, our department has continued to provide mental health services across the country. We also recognize the organization’s efforts to inform employees and managers about these resources, while encouraging people to use them.

  • 88% felt their supervisor supported the use of flexible work arrangements (plus 5%, compared with the public service overall)
  • 78% said that senior management had taken appropriate measures to protect employees’ mental health (plus 8%, compared with the public service overall)
  • 84% felt their supervisor supported their mental health and well-being (plus 5%, compared with the public service overall)
Public Service Employee Survey, 2020

Among other things, this global pandemic demonstrated to us all that we can and must adapt to ever-changing conditions and break through the inertia that can sometimes hold us back, particularly when it comes to psychological health and safety in the workplace. If there was ever a doubt, this crisis laid bare and magnified the inextricable relationship between a caring organization and a successful one. There has never been a better time to ensure that we can apply a mental health lens to all our decisions by minimizing psychological injury or distress, while maximizing employee engagement, empowerment and success. As we inevitably turn our attention to an eventual return to the workplace and consider how to build back better, continuing to apply a mental health lens will support a workforce that is changing in profound and encouraging ways—a workforce that is collectively looking to maintain a healthy work-life balance, while seeking meaning and joy in their work.

Although some employees never stopped going to the workplace during this pandemic, and although some will eventually go back to it when possible, working virtually is here to stay and will be part of our new normal to varying degrees within our department. Therefore, it is an opportunity to continue the efforts already started before the pandemic to provide remote management training and resources, including strong relationship-building.

An organizational legacy: 16 recommendations

Making recommendations based on employees’ input is a powerful participation tool that helps to enhance our organizational culture. These recommendations are shaping our workplaces in constructive ways so that we can continue providing support for organizational growth, while actively listening to our most important asset—our employees.

Recommendation 1

Improve recruitment, development and evaluation practices for supervisors, managers and executives, with a focus on people management.

Recommendation 2

Conduct exit and stay interviews.

Recommendation 3

Set up an entity to review and assess departmental projects through a mental health lens.

Recommendation 4

Conduct a psychological risk profile evaluation.

Recommendation 5

Appoint regional well-being coordinators.

Recommendation 6

Set up a multidisciplinary support team for the Miramichi Pay Centre that provides support for:

  • internal procedures
  • internal communications
  • well-being programs

Recommendation 7

Provide mental health training to employees and members of management.

Recommendation 8

Introduce the Deputy Minister’s Award of Excellence for Mental Health.

Recommendation 9

Develop tools for promoting civility and respect in the workplace.

Recommendation 10

Systematically provide the On-boarding and Orientation Program for new employees and students throughout the department and include the “psychological health” component in the mandatory occupational health and safety course.

Recommendation 11

Set up a centralized coaching program for managers and executives.

Recommendation 12

Create a directory of mentors in each branch and region.

Recommendation 13

Establish a mandatory on-boarding program for managers.

Recommendation 14

Provide remote management training.

Recommendation 15

Create an email distribution list for the entire department and keep it up to date.

Recommendation 16

Through mechanisms available to the department, consider introducing a clause, or alternate means, allowing employees to report the inappropriate, harassing or aggressive behaviours of co-workers, clients, partners or suppliers.

Epilogue: A message from the new Ombud for Mental Health—Magalie Brabant

Magalie Brabant

It is with great humility that I have accepted this very important role within the organization, and I would like to thank our Deputy Minister Matthews for his trust in me, but most importantly for his continued support and strong belief in this valued entity within our department. I would also like to thank my predecessor André Latreille, who was appointed the first Ombudsman for Mental Health within the Government of Canada and who has laid a solid foundation for the Office of the Ombud for Mental Health, which contributes to our organization’s continued success. This department and I have a long history. Over the past few years, I have met and worked with amazingly talented people and witnessed tremendous engagement, dedication and professionalism across the board. I have always been impressed by the diversity of our workforce; it is a valuable asset. For me, this department is not only at the centre of government operations, but it is also a driving force, supported by a highly skilled professionals with unrivalled expertise. No one does what we do and we do it so well. This past year is an outstanding example of that.

As your new Ombud for Mental Health, I would like to say that I consider this role to be a central and essential part of our organization. It is a serious job where I can work directly with our most important competitive advantage—our employees. I firmly believe in the vision of putting people first and this has carried me through my own career as I carefully chose to work in areas and programs that were rooted in providing support for our people first.

Since my appointment, many of you have talked to me about workplace situations that were detrimental to mental health (or psychosocial well-being) and told me about problems that affected your mental health in the workplace. I realize how privileged and uniquely positioned I am to gather independent feedback for our organization following those confidential consultations. At this point in time, it is important to remember that the pandemic is not over and that the state of normality we need is in a place where our personal and work lives collide, causing loss of privacy and boundaries, as employees continue to respond to competing pressures.

Employees are dealing with ongoing stressors in their personal lives (multiple lockdowns, social isolation, daycare/school closures, health risks, caring for a family member, financial security, etc.) and many of them are experiencing mental fatigue and fragility. There is a growing need to recognize that burnout can lead to mental health problems and reduces our ability as an organization to be resilient, agile, inclusive and equipped. To offset the negative impact, our organization should develop desired behaviour models, including honest assessments of workload and the impact of adding new deliverables. It is important to find innovative and collaborative ways to manage stress levels at work. As people leaders, we must get involved and communicate the importance of proactively setting priorities. The choices we make to eliminate barriers and integrate self-care will create a more balanced environment between our work and our personal lives—choices that can have a positive influence on our personal and organizational resilience.

As this pandemic lingers, as an organization, we must remain vigilant about preventing psychological injuries, as we face the possibility of an imminent mental health crisis. We must continue to equip our managers to provide their teams with psychological support, because the mental health issues we are facing today in the workplace might be different, less visible and more complex after the pandemic. We will need to establish the right conditions and keep up our efforts to increase our organizational resiliency and continue to invest in mental health and well-being programs and services. I am very encouraged by the PSES 2020 results that show great progress, especially in terms of our mental health awareness results. This is positioning us well as an organization of choice and for a successful return to work in our offices.

87% of PSPCC employees found that their department or organization was doing a good job of raising mental health awareness (plus 6%, compared with data for the public service overall); an 18% increase since 2017.

Public Service Employee Survey, 2020

For many employees, returning to work in our offices will be a source of stress and anxiety, and we need to be mindful of that. It will be important for us to use a leadership skill set that includes a more participatory and compassionate management style and relational skills such as patience, curiosity, empathy, active listening, building trust to empower autonomy, and being actively benevolent. I want to acknowledge the many managers and supervisors who actively provide support for their employees on an ongoing basis and the mental health awareness activities endorsed by management. The 2020 PSES results contain a higher percentage of positive responses from PSPC employees than from the federal public service as a whole on each of the questions about leadership and a psychologically healthy workplace. We are making progress. We need to keep it up.

I have taken on this new role following a year during which our collective conscience was shaken and a commitment was made towards a public service that includes the voices of marginalized employees within our organization. Bearing that in mind, it is very important to me to create a safe space where everyone is included and feel they belong. I am well aware that when faced with challenging situations affecting their mental health, not all employees feel safe to come forward and talk about it. I recognize that some are facing additional barriers that are sometimes rooted in systemic issues such as racism, discrimination or living with visible or invisible disabilities. Some are living with a wide range of issues that are interconnected and hamper their ability as individuals to contribute fully to our workplace. When we talk about the issues, they become visible, leave an historical footprint, and allow me to speak to systemic issues in order to shed light on the story of us. The story of one, is often the story of many—a story to be heard and a story for the organization to act upon.

This report is the story of us and continues to inform us about issues and recommendations that support a continually evolving workplace. I intend to continue bringing forward inclusive solutions that focus on removing barriers to safeguard our mental health. I look forward to meeting all of you and having meaningful conversations about how we can leverage our people first vision together.

Magalie

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