A new mental health plan could be ‘turning point’ in PS renewal – by Kathryn May, Ottawa Citizen, May 31, 2016

The federal government is poised to unveil a new mental health strategy that could be the “turning point” for an employer once dubbed the “worst of the worst” for its high level of chronic stress and depression among Canada’s public servants, said a leading mental health advocate.

Bill Wilkerson, chair of Mental Health International who is leading a pan-European campaign on depression, said a successful plan would change the way executives lead, managers manage and employees work, eliminating the stress that infected the public service like a “super bug” over the past decade.

That would, in turn, reduce absenteeism, boost morale, make employees more productive, innovative and better policy makers. Without a mental health strategy, Wilkerson says the much-promised renewal of the public service – the latest known as Blueprint 2020 – will remain elusive.

“A mental health strategy should be the heartbeat of public service renewal,” Wilkerson said in a wide-ranging interview.  “Without it, renewal is nourished by empty calories of rhetoric and distrust between public servants and their employer.

Wilkerson will be among experts discussing how to improve the health and well-being of public servants at a Wednesday symposium on leadership for Excellence, Innovation and Health held by the Association of Professional Executives in the Public Service of Canada (APEX).

He will join Michael Wilson, a former finance minister, ambassador to the U.S. and now chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.  The pair founded the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health in 1998 and delivered their final report several years ago..

Wilkerson said the plan in the making could transform the government from the “worst of the worst” employers to the “best of the best” and make Canada a model for other countries to follow.

For years, Wilkerson was a vocal critic of federal management practices that he once said made Ottawa the “depression capital of Canada.”

He railed at the previous Conservative government for “stigmatizing” public servants by focusing on the large number of sick days they took rather than finding out why the workplace made them sick.

Mental illness — particularly depression — is the leading cause of disability worldwide, striking working populations in their prime.

In the public service, mental health claims climbed steadily over the past decade and accounted for nearly half of all approved health claims.

The much-awaited mental health strategy will be built on the work of a joint union and management task force. Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick also has a special advisory committee of which Wilkerson was a member.

Wilkerson said executives and managers will be the key players in leading a change to rid the workplace of the management and organization practices and policies that contribute to stress and depression of employees:

1. The bureaucracy ‘treadmill. Public servants jumping from job to job with no ‘overall picture” of why and what it means.

2.  Giving employees lots of responsibility, but little discretion.

3. Too much work and not enough resources to do it.

4. Heavy and ‘destructive’ reliance on emails and texting to the exclusion of personal conversations.

5.  A workplace where ‘everything is a priority.’

6. Unclear expectations among employees of what they are responsible for and ambiguity around who is charge.

7.  Employees skills and the jobs people they are asked to do are not well-matched.

8 Employees are discouraged from and feel they have “no voice to question workload or priority-setting”

9. The loss of capacity to execute projects.

10. A pervasive sense of erratic management and perpetual delegation from the top down to the rank and file, which diffuses accountability and erodes faith in managers.

The plan comes as the public service faces a massive generational turnover with the departure of the baby boomers and Wilkerson estimates 85 per cent of new jobs demand “cerebral” not manual skills.

As the country’s largest employer, Wilkerson said the public service is a microcosm of the Canadian workforce and tackling the stresses there will give policy-makers a blueprint for preventing mental illness among all Canadians.

He said the Canada’s health care system has failed all Canadians, including public servants, facing mental illness with 75 per cent unable to get access to the services or care they need.

“Understanding the experience of their own employees –  senior government officials will escape the blinders of budgetary policy-making to see just how devastating the under-funding of mental health care in this country really is,” said Wilkerson.

With that, Wilkerson argue Canada could be international model and press to make  mental health a “global development priority’ when it hosts the G7 meetings in 2018