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EXecuTALK: Practical Tips for Strengthening Mental Health for Your Staff, Your Clients and Yourself (LPL1-V12)


This event recording features a discussion with mental health professional François Legault on strengthening the essentials of workplace well-being through sustained employee productivity, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation and retention.

Duration: 00:31:59
Published: February 8, 2022
Type: Video

Event: EXecuTALK: Practical Tips for Strengthening Mental Health for Your Staff, Your Clients and Yourself

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EXecuTALK: Practical Tips for Strengthening Mental Health for Your Staff, Your Clients and Yourself

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Transcript: EXecuTALK: Practical Tips for Strengthening Mental Health for Your Staff, Your Clients and Yourself

Danl Loewen: Hello, and welcome to EXecuTALKs, brought to you by the School of Public Service. Sitting beside me is François Legault, a fairly experienced senior public service executive, who is also an expert in mental health.

Often when we hear mental health, we think actually of mental illness, when in fact mental health is that state in which we are the most productive, the most creative, when we are best fit for purpose as human beings. 
There's the question that, as a leader, as someone responsible for other public servants who provide services to clients and who must take care of themselves. That's a good question. What can we do as a senior manager, who is too busy to encourage mental health in the workplace?

Let's ask that of François Legault. Given your expertise, clinical as an executive, as well as having advised the Mental Health Commission of Canada and playing a role at treasury board secretariat in the policy development, the memorandum to cabinet, the business case I should say.  As well as your own work in operations in Health Canada providing EAP services, employee assistance program, to most of the federal public service. What's the key thing that a leader can do to promote mental health for their staff, for their clients and for themselves?

François Legault: I would start with providing, doing what's necessary for your own mental health first and foremost, because as the role of a leader is sometimes requiring that you put aside your own reactions to things and you become sort of a scratching post for a lot of the, the staff that depend on you. Even your colleagues and to some degree your superiors. Right? So your task as an executive is to get things done and there's a lot of pressure.

Danl Loewen: Yeah.

François Legault: So even if we don't feel that pressure it doesn't mean that it's there. I'm thinking that —

Danl Loewen: It's, it doesn't mean that it's not there.

François Legault: Yeah, it doesn't mean that it's not there. And we may feel stronger and, and we can get surprised at times of how we react to situations that we never thought would trigger us. I'm speaking from my own experience, personal experience, but also some of the wisdom that I've heard from retired general Roméo Dallaire who has as a leader in a very high stress situation. I'm sure you appreciate was able to live this experience where he wasn't able to necessarily connect with his needs. Basic needs like sleeping for example.

Danl Loewen: While being on the genocide and in Africa.

François Legault: Well, that's it. And, even in connection with his emotions, he had to put that aside to, to be operational. And sometimes we do that as executives, and it's okay because we can delay, emoting, we can delay connecting with our underlying emotions and feelings about things.  But we need to plan for that because our busy lives at work don't allow us to do that and perhaps we also have busy lives at, at home. Some of the executives are, part of the sandwich generation now.

Danl Loewen: Looking after kids and parents at the same time.

François Legault: Exactly. So that's the definition. And so for them, it's finding a time where they can be with them, by themselves, shut down the brain for a while and just let the rest of the body respond, respond to what's happening. So in the story from General Dallaire if you've read some of his books and even went to some of his conferences, he has said at least twice in the conferences I attended, where he was surprised by his reaction when he started shooting dogs indiscriminately because he was seeing the dogs eat some of the deceased in this horrible, horrible situation of genocide. And he at that time realized, 'Oh, I lost it because I'm doing this in front of my troops. They will not be able to rely on me anymore because I lost control over my emotions.' And so he said, "I knew at that time that I need to be replaced." So we don't want that to happen for executives. We don't want to burn the midnight candle by both ends. And we don't want to be in a situation where we have to retire because we're totally exhausted and things, you know, we've been surprised by our own emotion. So I would say you have to be calm. This is more like, you know, how do we want to, to project a good mental health ourselves. We want to model that in a certain degree. Perhaps not the emotional part always, but to be, to show the human part of ourselves too. That we do need some time off.

Danl Loewen: Often it is seen as a strength to not show my emotions, to not allow me to be a human being.  When in fact, I'm a resource of the government of Canada that I may be mistreating.  Is there any advice that ... because I noticed that you mentioned that

François Legault: like cover your assets. Cause you're an asset. That's what you're saying

Danl Loewen: Yeah. We are a resource of the public service,

François Legault: Absolutely, we are, we are an investment. The government. We invest in training. Often there are thousands of dollars of training even if it's language training —

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: For some of us, leadership training —

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: That the School, well, you offer a lot here, at the School, but it costs money. It's an investment, especially your salary and all that, it's very expensive —

Danl Loewen: [chuckles]

François Legault: So, it's expensive for the government, but after taxes, of course. So, all this to say that we need to take... We are often pushed to think about managing resources well and we forget that we are a resource for the federal government as well, and the people around us. So to get back to your question if I can, it's being sensitive to, to one's feelings and then to the needs of the team -- that is, the people who work for us, and to be a little proactive as well, to go explore how people who know who may have experienced something difficult or who have been doing overtime recently, is to make a connection and then go say, "how are you doing"? I see that you put in a lot of time, a lot of effort into this. I realize that maybe it's, it's hard and it's obvious what you did. How do you feel? Do you need some rest? Often the people who are most dependent on an executive, are, they are people who have a very high level of performance, high achievers.

High performing individuals and who wouldn't want to have a team of high performers, right? I remember hiring you because you were high performer. So, getting high performers around you is the ideal situation and you can delegate and you trust them to get things done and that releases you from certain worries and stuff and that's good for your own mental health. But, at the same time you don't want to burn them out. And they may be a bit like the moth and the flame. The more tasks you give them, the more excited they get and the more passionate they get. And that could be a sign of danger, danger for themselves too. So sometimes we have to be a little bit more of a big sister, big brother and say, 'whoa, whoa, whoa. I want to give you this, file this challenge.  But I would like to try it out on somebody else too. So that just to share the wealth, share the excitement and I'd rather let you go to the next phase of your project or which may be less exciting.' But, cause there's just so much excitement.

Danl Loewen: Yes, true.

François Legault: We can live —

Danl Loewen: Stimulation for a lot of us —

François Legault: Well we discovered this with our teenagers.

Danl Loewen: Oh yeah?

François Legault: I happen to have some so you know, so with teenagers we know that, you know, the constant stimulation until the early morning hours are detrimental to their sleep, rest, physical and mental health. We have more anxiety disorders in young people today than we have ever experienced, statistically. And what is really different is the internet. It's telephones, it's constant contact with others and communication. They're constantly doing two things. Then we often tell the executives you've always juggled several projects at the same time, but our teenagers have not even matured and are already dealing with several things at the same time. You talk to them and then they're like 'wait a minute, wait a minute dad, then click, click, click, click.

Danl Loewen: Give me a moment —

François Legault: And you too, so that in the end, their minds are never at rest. My wife and I told our kids when we went camping that the whole point is that you find it boring.  We want you to get bored because you need to have time where you're disconnected completely. You just like, so those phones give us your phones, we're going to go. So of course, it was met with, "oh no" you know, but eventually they connected with other youths, they connected with nature. We're able to do things in family. I think we've contributed to prevent some damage to their brains because of this constant stimulation. So the same with high-performers. They're like teenagers in a way. They have like lots of energy and they can handle a lot of stuff, but you have to be careful about them too.

Danl Loewen: And that strength, the ability to absorb a lot of stress at once can be a weakness of mine.

François Legault: Yeah, it is a strength and it is a double-edged sword, right? Every strength that we have can be a double edge sword. We may be very good at something and if we do too much of it, we pay the price.

Danl Loewen: Right.

François Legault: So the same, the same for that too.  I think also what we can do for our, if we go to doing for our unit or work unit, like I don't think we need to, to explore the how, a mentally healthy workplace contributes to greater productivity and better rapport and greater health overall. We know that —

Danl Loewen: It's so clear there, it boosts, innovation, creativity, collaboration, productivity, reliability and resilience.

François Legault: So all of that we know. But the question is how do we make that happen in, in a unit, perhaps a new unit we've just inherited and we're working with these people focus on their strength. I would say focus on their strength. What do these folks do well and do easy? And then do they have enough challenge, balance the challenge with, with their capacity. Give them new challenges, support them in that. That's just good management and good management equals good mental health too. So, going back to basics, I think we go back to basics when it comes to mental health, we go back to psychology 101. Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: You know, like do they have a safe job? In the public sector yeah, in many cases there's —

Danl Loewen: Most of the time.

François Legault: Yeah. Most of the time we go through periods of re contraction. And so that's anxiety provoking for, for federal workers. But contrary to shutting down and going for bankruptcy and releasing everybody and take their pension plan with you. There are some security. So from the Maslow perspective being a federal public servant and an even an executive is pretty stable around that thing. But perhaps the other levels need to be worked on. For example, knowing that you're important.

I think we sometimes have to remind ourselves how important we are because we don't hear it from the public at large.

Danl Loewen: Right.

François Legault: We may hear it within the federal public service to a certain degree, but recognition and rewards is really important and I know we've —

Danl Loewen: It need not be a certificate. It can just be an acknowledgement in front of my peers.

François Legault: Yeah, and rewarding for actual prowess, rewarding for actual contribution as opposed to rewarding the whole unit. Although, there's just a few individuals that actually did the work in order to prevent conflict from happening. Sometimes we are a little too cautious about that human element of jealousy and competition. It's there, it's going to be there anyway. So making sure that the rewards are given and recognition to the people who actually done something extraordinary as opposed to try to give rewards and medals to everybody like we do with the kids these days.

Danl Loewen: Sure.

François Legault: Cause we're afraid of people being upset or insulted or jealous.

Danl Loewen: So there's a, there's a great deal there in terms of it's not sufficient for me as an executive to think I'm getting what I need and getting the deliverables, someone gives me what I asked for. That doesn't mean it's not worth it to, to make sure their mental health is treated at the same time.

François Legault: If you look at the process, did people have fun doing it?

Danl Loewen: Yeah.

François Legault: Were people smiling to one another?

Danl Loewen: Yeah.

François Legault: Were people having fun? When one of the colleagues was going through a difficult time, did he get support from his peers? Was there a spirit of collegiality? So, if it wasn't there, it can start with us. We can show the importance by acting, by stopping, OK?  Stop the presses. We need to talk to this individual. We need to focus on helping this person go through this difficult period.

Danl Loewen: Right.

François Legault: It comes from the leader. Then you create an organizational culture within that unit that will support each other. That support is so important. I've coached executives, I've had executives report to me in senior positions and sometimes they're afraid of that collegiality, the fear of them all ganging up against a hard boss for example. 

Like, let's be honest. Sometimes we say, 'well maybe it's better to create division than to actually encourage people to talk and to work together.' So I've seen that happen regrettably and sometimes our role is to intervene and to, to educate that manager to say, 'no, no, you have to trust your people.' Not going down the right road here.

Danl Loewen: Right.

François Legault: Perhaps they've learned that from previous work settings where people were at a, in French we say at loggerheads.  People were constantly worried about each other and, and outperforming in a competitive way. That is not healthy and it'll destroy the asset, the resource that the government has developed. So managing that and being very careful. I think the number one enemy in a setting where people have, where it's difficult to terminate an employee, let's be honest in the federal public service, is to see an employee who behaves in a way that harms everybody else. And we're trying to contain the behaviour and it takes two years, three years, four years before finally terminating that employee. I've coached people through the process and we suspect it's a mental health issue, so therefore we don't act on administratively to address the behaviour. If we go back to the national standard on psychological health and safety, psychological safety is one key element.

Therefore, the psychological wellness of your employees becomes as important as mental health problems and helping an individual who acts in a way that hurts others. So psychological wounds that come from an individual whose behaviour is out of control must be contained, must be disciplined, must be addressed immediately. And by acting like a leader, you'll have the respect of your troops. These people will trust you as a leader. But if you let it go and then hope that peers step in, OK, at this point, you guys are just cultivating harassment. You cultivate anger. You are sowing discord in the workplace. Better to address things in a responsible manner as soon as possible, and not wait until it becomes messy and difficult to sort out.

But I would say it's one of the pieces of advice that, in my experience and the coaching I give executives, it's to say that we have to find the courage and the necessary resources to help us address the situation, even if we want to sometimes help the person, there are certain behaviours that are simply unacceptable.

Danl Loewen: And there are times when we know that there's a lot of work goes into managing specific situations or individuals who regard through challenges in the workplace. At the same time managing the workplace in a way that strengthens the mental health of everybody there. Because as you indicated, some folks are dealing with mental health challenges, but everybody has mental health. I could have the mental health equivalent of a, a paper cut that's really irritating me or a cold or a broken leg or a pregnancy or diabetes long before we're talking about anything way down the road.

François Legault: Sure.

Danl Loewen: And how, I contribute to my mental health is as important as how it contributes to my physical health.

François Legault: This is where we talk about resilience is that there's a whole set of research and stuff that I often teach in the courses I give.  'Mental Health First Aid' 'The Working Mind.' And these are some of the products that I've taught a lot actually. I think I've crossed the 100 courses that I've given so far and in my semi-retirement mode as a consultant. And what I discover is exactly that. Is the whole issue of making sure that people focus on the strength, not just the weaknesses? Saying that, we come back to the work, the workplace, the work unit as you, I think you were asking about. So in the workplace, if you use, if you just use the 13 psychosocial risk factors that were developed in the national standard, right? Of which I'm an author, right?

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: That's why I keep putting —

Danl Loewen: Yes, it is nonetheless the national standard.

François Legault: It's like, so those 13 factors come from research into workplace health and workplace mental health. So if you look at those, there may be some that are very strong in your workplace and you may have used the public service employee survey to identify those. You may use the 'Guarding minds' and other freebies that you can use to do that. I know that, I've worked actually as a consultant with the School to help do that with one unit here. And they found, if I can go back to, to that one for the for your school was that there were some real strength engagement was super strong that workplace, and the risk is that we're going to neglect those and only focus on those that are problematic here.

Danl Loewen: Hear hear!

François Legault: We have to work on both because as you focus on the strength of your organization, you increase the resilience of your whole staff. And this is something that we've said and we know for sure that people just forget about.

Danl Loewen: So as you —

François Legault: Don't neglect the strengths.

Danl Loewen: So as you take the steps that will strengthen the mental health for the wellbeing, for the operations as a whole —

François Legault: You need to maintain and not neglect what's already working well.

Danl Loewen: Right.

François Legault: So you remember, probably some of my coaching style as a boss or I would say so tell me about what this —

Danl Loewen: I've had 15 years to heal, but yes.

François Legault: Yeah. Well, therapy works obviously. It's to say, what does work well for you this week? How did you sell that to the client? How did you get them to agree and sign that memorandum of understanding? And then, sometimes it would take my staff and perhaps you too off guard because you expect to talk about problems.

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: With your boss, and instead it was like, let's focus on what you did well and how, let's dissect that. Let's really spend time to understand how did you do that? Because that skill you can use to address your problem.  Right? Or you can give confidence to people so they can actually address the conflict in the workplace. They can react to something that they found hurtful.

Danl Loewen: It's more of an appreciative inquiry approach. What is working? What do I want more of? What is working well —

François Legault: As opposed to what is not working well.

Danl Loewen: Yep. As an executive in the public service, if I was to pick one thing that I could do that have the greatest impact in my shop, what might it be?

François Legault: Smile. Be calm. Have fun in the job that you do and don't neglect the importance of the work that your staff and yourself do. Focus on that and say we are important to Canadians. We're important to the federal public service. We are deserving of the security and the pay that we get.

Danl Loewen: Good stuff. The 10 minutes we have left, participants are welcome to click on the participate button. If they have a question they'd like to put to François Legault an experienced executive, a respected leader in the employee assistance community and an author give us the name again and an author, one of the authors of the national standard —

François Legault: National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Danl Loewen: Awesome. The idea of safety in the workplace is —

François Legault: Z 1003 dash 13 from CSA group.

Danl Loewen: Right. Thank you.

François Legault: Or the BNQ 93 00.

Danl Loewen: I'm sure there's someone in comps was very pleased with that label has been applied.

François Legault: I'm saying this for accountants and a number of people.

Danl Loewen: So what resources are available? If I as an executive want to avail myself of some supports or I want to encourage my staff to make use of supports, not because you have a problem, you should do this, but because hey, we can all be stronger.

François Legault: Well, the employee assistance services that provides most departments and for that matter agencies and even some crown corporations with an employee assistance program., They have a specialized organizational services unit, as you know, well. They specialize in helping the person identify what is going wrong that they would like to fix in the workplace.  They have a, quite a menu of different consultants and psychosocial interveners who I could, I can actual —

Danl Loewen: Master's in social work, psychologist.

François Legault: Right, right. And, um, some experienced mediators. Smaller organizations don't have, how would I say a strong alternative dispute resolution or —

Danl Loewen: Informal conflict management unit—

François Legault: Yeah, informal conflict management unit. So they can, they can tap into what SOS provides. And of course, if we suspect that there's a mental health issue sometimes getting some coaching on how to approach that employee. —

Danl Loewen: Coaching for me and how to deal with —

François Legault: How to approach and how to have that difficult conversation. We're often frightened to even open the can of worms with regards to a mental illness. When in fact, people suffer from mental illness at a rate right now where, there's enough people suffering on a daily basis that they could probably elect a minority government. So I mean that's, we're talking 25% of the population will have, will have an emerging mental health problem in the year, in a 12-month period —

Danl Loewen: In a given year —

François Legault: In a given year. So never mind those that are already suffering, if you add, those are looking at 44, 45% of your workforce who will at least one time in their career experience a mental illness, never mind a mental health problem. So, it's now become the number one cause of disability worldwide for those areas that actually document and can categorize mental illness as a disability. It manifests itself in so many facets that sometimes we just see it as a conflict or we think this person's just a pain in the royal derriere and you know, but there may be something underlying there. I would I say the behaviour is the tip of the pyramid.

Danl Loewen: Right.

François Legault: Or the tip of the iceberg and we don't see what's underneath unless we explore. So helping coaching that person to explore is sometimes very helpful.

Danl Loewen: I have encountered that. I have somebody I think is a difficult employee when in fact they're living in experience. They're not a difficult employee so much as they may be difficult to supervise for me until I get some information about how to deal with something like that.

François Legault: People are overtaxed.

François Legault: We are overburdened by personal problems, problems at work, physical health problems as well.

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: And then we can lose our patience. We are no longer able to function. I like what the partners, formerly the partners for mental health had as part of their campaign: "Not myself today" —

Danl Loewen: "Not myself today", yeah —

François Legault: Which was an awareness campaign that, as you were saying earlier, at any given moment we might not be at 100 percent, we are feeling down, so to speak. So sometimes, you have to go out and find the resources to get back into it. Unfortunately, we're often the last to know that we're feeling down, so what a supervisor can do sometimes is just ... point the finger at the behaviour that may be a clue to the person that it's time to get help.  Getting help at the earliest possible time increases the risk that that help will be successful.

Danl Loewen: Increases the likelihood.

François Legault: The likelihood, not a risk. Yeah. The likelihood that it will be successful. And at the same time it makes it less complex and it prevents other dysfunctions —

Danl Loewen: Sure.

François Legault: From taking hold on the person's behaviour and way of seeing the world. So you can prevent a depression from intervening very early. When somebody's going through a grieving period. You can intervene an anxiety disorder by simply encouraging somebody to not avoid certain situations, but learn to cope with that anxiety.

Danl Loewen: It sounds a bit like the notion that immunity. The idea that I could have a depressed immune system, so I'm more likely to be, by overworking all kinds of things which leads to the likes at picking up something else. And it sounds a bit like a parallel to, in the absence of resilience, in the absence of consciously investing in the things that strengthen myself and strengthen the mental health and the team that I could actually be subjecting folks to a secondary issue that it presents —

François Legault: It has ripple effects absolutely. We see that, I'm sure we've all seen that in, in the workplace, so that ripple effect from one, one individual who's not doing well. And or even ourselves and how we, we sometimes are surprised by how sensitive people are. When I did a couple of 360 degrees, I was really surprised that you guys were worried about my mental health. But because you thought I was like working all the time and too passionate and too you know and this and that. What you didn't know is that I would be able to completely disconnect and go home and just like be a lumberjack, go out in the forest and cut down trees, you know.

Danl Loewen: It's when we talk more and more about work life balance and the idea of work life integration is happening more and more. There's an interesting notion that it's not about working so much. It's about not getting whatever for you constitutes a break. I could be working 37 and a half hours a week, but if my brain doesn't shut off from that, I'm in trouble.

François Legault: Exactly.

Danl Loewen: Someone else might be working 45 hours a week, but they shut off from that and do other things, they might be okay.

François Legault: Yeah. It comes back to an old Seinfeld episode where they say, 'serenity now'. Like, I want that break and I want it now. You know?

Danl Loewen: So, if I want to strengthen my own mental health promote it among my staff to create conditions in which we all treat our clients and that matter. You mentioned a few direct services employee assistance program.

François Legault: Yeah —

Danl Loewen: Short term counseling and referrals to get you to other resources. You mentioned a Specialized Organizational Services, which is more proactive. You could get someone to come in and coach, mediate and team building —

François Legault:   And the leaders call upon that service more than the front line person.

Danl Loewen: Right. So the individual, I could call the EAP but I can also call in as a manager, as a leader. I can call in and get somebody now, can I?

François Legault: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. The other thing is that employees can call upon EAP to get to find out how they can support a colleague going through a difficult period. They can discuss how this, the behaviour of that employee and the impact it has on their own mental health, and how to, and get some, some support into how to plan to go and talk to the boss about it. So EAP, at the very front line can help with those issues as well.

Danl Loewen: Yes.

François Legault: But going back to the mental health of the whole team. I know that the fed, the federal government and many crown corporations and even now I have private sector clients who are implementing the standard or they're developing a mental health strategy for their unit. So we know that that's something important. And, all the DMs have worked on this for a couple of years now. So, we know that there's been these assessments of workplace factors that may actually impact on the health of employees and how to improve that. And sometimes, it takes several years before you're going to see any major change.

Danl Loewen: Yes, yes.

François Legault: So I would say to folks, be patient, the process does work. We had a three-year case study done with 20 organizations from a variety of different settings who implemented the standard. And we were able to follow them over three years. And we found again, that the outcomes were positive. But that it's a long winded.

Danl Loewen: A long –

François Legault: Initiative, yeah. And it's not a one-time thing. It's not a program. It's, you're implementing a system similar to the system of health and safety —

Danl Loewen: Almost a culture –

François Legault: Yes.  And it involves everybody. So you need to have representation. So saying that employees can help the organizational culture, the organizational climate themselves. Don't wait for your supervisor to do it, your boss to do it.

Danl Loewen: Anyone can do right now, that means

François Legault: Right away —

Danl Loewen: To stay calm, smile —

François Legault: Smile —

Danl Loewen: Being aware of the effect, I can have on others —

François Legault: Yes.

Danl Loewen: Also aware of what I can do to help other people —

François Legault: Yes, acknowledge your colleague's contribution to the project.

Danl Loewen: Yes —

François Legault: Highlighting positive things, sharing more positive and balanced thoughts —

Danl Loewen: Yes —

François Legault: Even when we are going through difficult times...

Danl Loewen: And at the same time, I remember that I'm not alone. There are other people who have the same experience and that there are resources that you mentioned.

François Legault: As Red Green would say, we're all in this together. So, let's work together to make this a better workplace.  We're spending way too much time at work, so let's make it a pleasant and comfortable place where people can be authentic and honest as much as possible and function and get things done as we're supposed to do.

Danl Loewen: François Legault, thank you so much for your advice, and sharing your thoughts —

François Legault: Thanks Danl —

Danl Loewen: With EXecuTALKs, brought to you by the School of Public Service, thank you very much.

François Legault: It's my pleasure.

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