Every year one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health challenge or illness, however only one in three will get help. As a consequence, many miss deadlines, make mistakes, and become less productive, all while struggling to perform. In the “before times” when I could speak to audiences in person about these issues, I would sometimes ask people to stand if they, or anyone in their life, had experienced mental illness. Invariably, regardless of how many people were in the room, everyone stood up. That was always a powerful moment.
While we generally know what to do when a colleague takes time away from work because of a physical illness, we sometimes become stuck when the time away is for mental health reasons. We think about reaching out but don’t, and before we know it weeks or months have passed, and it feels too awkward to do anything. There is no rulebook on what to do when a colleague takes a leave for mental health reasons, so I decided to offer a few suggestions.
1. Communicate: Keeping in touch with someone on leave improves their chances of successfully returning to work. It also lets the person know they matter, and that their job is there for them whenever they are ready to return. However, some people may feel pressured when colleagues from work check-in while they are away, so I suggest you apply the “platinum rule”, which is to treat others as they would like to be treated. Ask your colleague what they would like you to do.
2. Maintain contact: Connection is important to foster and maintain. Firms and organizations should identify someone who will be responsible for maintaining contact. Ideally, this would be someone who has a good relationship with the person on leave. If this is you, take time to reach. Use compassion and empathy to connect with what your colleague may be feeling. Invite them for a virtual coffee or a physically distanced walk. You don’t have to be a counsellor, you just need to be there, and let them know they aren’t alone. Be patient.
3. Take initiative: Don’t wait for your colleague to volunteer when and how they want to hear from you. They have enough on their plate. It takes tremendous courage to ask for help when you are struggling with mental illness and the legal profession has what I like to call, “a lot of opportunity for growth” when it comes to overcoming stigma. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you to reach out – OFTEN.
4. Respect privacy: If your colleague prefers privacy and isn’t ready or doesn’t want to chat, you should respect their wishes. Perhaps ask if it would be alright to touch base in a few weeks, in case they change their mind.
5. Keep you colleague in the loop: Ask your colleague if it is alright to share information about office events so they feel included. Send them invitations to firm socials, client events, birthdays etc. Don’t assume they don’t want to attend. Conversely, don’t pressure them to attend. Meet them where they are at. Either way, these invitations can help people on leave stay connected.
6. Offer to help: Offer to help and keep your offer specific. A general invitation such as, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” while well intentioned, can place a burden on the person who is already feeling overwhelmed. Be specific instead and say something like, “I’m doing my meal preparation this weekend and wondered if I could drop a lasagne off at your place this Sunday?”
7. Resist the urge to problem solve: This one can be difficult for lawyers because that is what we do for a living. Instead, use empathy and compassion. If we think hard enough and feel deeply enough, we can usually connect with something inside ourselves that has experienced adversity in a way that gives us a window of understanding into what our colleague may be experiencing.
Maybe none of these suggestions fit the circumstances or feel right for you or your colleague. If that is the case, remember this one thing, if all else fails be sure to let your colleague know “you see them.” We all have a role to play in creating a supportive, accepting, and welcoming work environment to help our colleagues flourish when they return to work.