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  • Writer's pictureElio Choquette

We Need To Talk About Needing To Talk

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

I don’t know about you, but I remember vividly the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic — the chaos of virtual meetings, cameras suddenly in our homes revealing people, pets and living situations (read, how much overdue laundry and dishes we could see in our colleagues’ backgrounds), the back and forth with IT, the scrambling to find ways of collaborating remotely, the daily press conferences, trying to find out how long we’d be stuck working like this. (Remember when we thought it’d only be two weeks?)



I was already going through a pretty tough time at the beginning of 2020. In fact, the day before everything abruptly closed and we were told to stay home indefinitely, I actually had a pretty bad meltdown at work during a team meeting. Like, the “panic attack, unable to breathe or stop crying” kind of bad.


My boss helped me step out of the room, sat me down in an empty office with a glass of water, and asked me what was wrong. They didn’t force me to disclose anything, of course. But they told me that we needed to talk, because they could see that my performance at work had been steadily dropping. They only wanted to understand what was going on, they said.


They wanted to know how they could best support me.


Now, I’ve done this dance many times, at different moments of my life, with different bosses. It sounds good, even positive when you put it that way, and I do think that it stems from a genuine desire to help.


But the thing is — more often than not, it’s just not that simple, when it comes to mental health. “Help” is not always easy to provide. Sometimes, there are no clear “solutions” for improvement. There’s no “one size fits all” approach (not that there actually is something such as “one size fits all” period, but that is another discussion for another day).


And that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? How can workplaces genuinely help and support their staff when they don’t understand how? Especially when they are not remotely equipped to accommodate and handle mental illnesses and disabilities. How can “help” come in any sustainable form when it’s the workplace culture itself that creates problems to begin with? How can organizations or businesses be inclusive when they don't even know where to start?


Many mental illnesses and learning disabilities appear invisible. You could work alongside someone and never know that they struggle daily to accomplish the most basic tasks. I know it would’ve shocked most of my coworkers to see the state of my apartment or my finances at certain points of my life.


Most days, I don’t “look” ill or like I’m struggling. I am what we call “high functioning”, which only means that it’s easier for me to pass as neurotypical (*) sometimes. A lot of us learn to “mask” our symptoms or differences, to push through our difficulties, and to prioritize work over our wellbeing. We internalize that we’re not good enough, that we’re too lazy, asking for too much, not trying hard enough. And how could we not, when overworking to the point of burning out is glorified in our performance-driven society? How many people have I heard “bragging” about never taking a single sick day, even when they were actually sick? (Which is quite a weird flex, but okay.)


Though we tend to separate them, mental and physical health are deeply intertwined. Mental health IS health. And no one is immune to struggling with it. If anything, the pandemic has made many people realise how precarious their mental health really was (and how awful and fragile our healthcare system is). In fact, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), “mental illness is a leading cause of disability [...], preventing nearly 500,000 employed Canadians from attending work each week”. And only one in two Canadians going through major depressive episodes have reported receiving “potentially adequate care”, while over 33% of people over 15 have expressed that their needs were not fully met by the care they have received, and three out of four children with mental disorders lack access to specialized treatments.



It’s something disability activists have been talking about for years, advocating for better practices that make jobs more accessible, and not only for people living with disabilities. Before the pandemic, most organizations and businesses simply didn’t believe changing their existing workplace culture was possible, let alone profitable. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” was the predominant attitude; and why change practices and policies when most people don’t need accommodations to get a job and keep it?


Except, it’s not just “a few” people who live with one or more disabilities — it’s 6.2 million (22%) of Canadians over the age of 15, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability Report. And this number will likely only increase in the coming years, with our aging workforce.


But if there’s one thing this pandemic has shown us, it’s that it actually is possible for workplace cultures to change — and almost overnight — when needed. If anyone had told us, even just in February 2020, that working from home would become the new normal, I’m pretty sure most of us would have scoffed in disbelief.


And yet, here we are now, two and a half years later, and a StatCan Report not only found that “roughly 40% of Canadian jobs can be done from home”, but also that 80% of people working remotely would prefer working from home for at least half their hours in a post-pandemic context. Now that they have experienced a different workplace model, people simply do not want to go back to pre-pandemic standards. Which is also a major victory (albeit a bittersweet one) for disability justice, as more people living with disabilities are able to access jobs they couldn’t before, being limited by in-person workplace requirements and rigid structures.


But what does it tell about our society, about our perspective on who is worthy of investment and when, that it took a global pandemic, absolute necessity and a sense of economical urgency for the world to realise that a better, more accessible workplace is possible? Why do “the needs of the few” only seem to matter and be worth investing in when they also benefit “the many”, when those in power in the workplace are the ones most affected?



PRACTICAL APPROACHES


Being more inclusive and accessible is not complicated. In fact, what most people living with disabilities need is simple — flexibility. And a healthy dose of empathy.


Oh, and I almost forgot — MONEY. Because therapy is expensive, medication is expensive, adapted transport and equipment are expensive, unpaid work leaves and sick days are expensive. In short, living with one or more disabilities is expensive. We should make a habit of investing in mental health just as much as we do physical health; you wouldn’t want your employee who just broke their wrist to handle heavy machinery, would you?


Although there are many ways to go about making workplaces more inclusive and accessible, here are a few examples of better practices and policies:


  • Having multiple resources on hand (educational brochures, free therapy consultation, crisis hotlines) made readily accessible to all employees (eg. in the employee on-boarding documents);

  • Hiring a human resource person or team equipped with the proper tools and training, that checks in regularly with every employee;

  • Having a confidential system of disclosure of mental illness and disabilities that ensures privacy and respect, with intentional follow-ups;

  • Having clear policies about inclusion and diversity, and offering regular mandatory training to all managers and employees;

  • Being open to feedback from disabled employees and prepared to implement their requests and ideas;

  • Implementing a strategic plan and regular assessments of inclusive practices and their impact.


“We need to talk” doesn’t have to be a stressful and anxiety-inducing sentence, for both employer and employee. With the proper tools, empathy and intentions, it can become an opening, a conversation, an opportunity for connection instead of a dreaded confrontation. A first step at moving away from “needing to talk” — and closer to “I’m listening.”


(*) Neurotypical refers to people with “typical” neurological development and capacities, and is often used in opposition to the word “neurodivergent”. Both terms fall under the umbrella of “neurodiversity”, as defined by Judy Singer, who coined the term in the 1990s: “Neurodiversity refers to the virtually infinite neuro-cognitive variability within Earth’s human population. It points to the fact that every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs.” (NeurodiversityHUB. What Is Neurodiversity?https://www.neurodiversityhub.org/what-is-neurodiversity)


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This is Elio Choquette's first contribution to the THC Blog.

Elio Choquette is a bilingual licensed architect turned community organizer, as well as a writer, translator and graphic designer. A graduate of both Université de Montréal and McGill University, their architecture work, spanning ten years, has been mostly focused on institutional buildings, from infrastructures in Nunavik and Nunavut to healthcare facilities around Montreal.


As a disabled queer and trans person who’s passionate about accessibility and anti-oppression, Elio turned to community work in 2016, becoming the Human Resources Director on the Board of Rock Camp Montreal (RCMTL), a small nonprofit fostering empowerment of girls, trans and gender nonconforming youth through music and social justice.


Throughout their five years as a main organizer of RCMTL, Elio personally oversaw the update of the organization’s human resources policies and hiring practices, implementing new protocols, reviewing the existing documents and leading more than seven different hiring committees. Keeping anti-oppression and harm reduction at the forefront of all their work, Elio regularly audited Rock Camp’s equity, diversity and inclusion policies, in order to ensure that the organization’s values matched its actual practices.


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