As Speaker of Canada’s Upper Chamber, I am expected to preside over matters impartially. However, there are some issues that transcend partisanship and party lines. One is the mental health of parliamentarians and employees.
More and more, parliamentarians are speaking openly and candidly about their personal struggles with mental illness. In sharing such intimate experiences, they have done a tremendous service to everyone. With one in five Canadians experiencing a mental illness in any given year, we are ever mindful of the urgent need to address this important issue.
Anyone who has worked in Parliament can understand the steep learning curve upon arrival: the overwhelming plethora of rules, policies and procedures to absorb, and the adjustment to the fast-paced and public nature of the job.
A typical day in Ottawa can start at dawn and finish long after sundown. Packed into each day’s work are sittings, committee meetings, phone calls, courtesy visits, briefings with staff, meetings with constituents and stakeholders, special ceremonies and networking events. It is easy to get caught up in the cut and thrust of life on the Hill. The work of Parliament is intense, exciting and often rewarding; sometimes, too, it can be done at the expense of our personal health.
We are all too aware of the day-to-day stresses of working on Parliament Hill, from the limited downtime to the constant travel. Recent innovations, however, have added new dimensions to challenges faced by employees and parliamentarians alike. While advances in technology have no doubt increased efficiencies, we often find ourselves in a constant state of hyperconnectivity — a feeling of always being “on” or “on call,” and never quite perfecting that work-life balance, despite our best efforts.
It may have been easier for parliamentarians and employees to separate our personal and work lives before the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, remote access and the 24-hour news cycle. Increased demands on our time and attention now come at a greater personal cost. This makes it difficult to “power off,” decompress and tune out the relentless buzz of official Ottawa.
This shows the importance of mental health awareness. We know that stress at work can cause depression, anxiety or burnout. This invisible illness touches all of us, either directly or indirectly. According to a recent study conducted by Morneau Shepell and The Globe and Mail, workplace stress is the primary cause of mental health problems among Canadian employees.
Fortunately, a number of tools and resources exist for those who need assistance. In the Senate, services include a comprehensive Employee and Family Assistance Program, which is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provides confidential and voluntary counselling services for senators, staff and Senate Administration employees. Support is available over the phone, in person, online and through a variety of health and wellness resources.
In addition, training courses are offered both online and on site on topics such as mental health awareness, conflict resolution and mental health first aid. Information on all available resources is regularly shared Senate-wide by e-mail and provided to new employees as part of their orientation.
While these tools are very helpful, we can and must continuously improve and update our services. We must maintain open and frank discussions about the challenges we all face in the workplace. Above all, we must take better care — both of ourselves and of those around us.
No one is immune.
Showing empathy, care and compassion to those facing mental health issues goes a long way in the recovery process. We are more than just parliamentarians and parliamentary employees; we are also people. And no person should be left to feel like they are suffering alone.
I am proud to be part of this conversation. Focusing on the well-being of parliamentarians and employees is a critical component of everything we do. Nurturing the mental health of everyone on the Hill makes us all better at our work — and better human beings.
George J. Furey is the Speaker of the Senate and represents Newfoundland and Labrador.
This article appeared in the October 3, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.