By Mary Ann Baynton, MSW, RSW
I remember sitting across from a soft-spoken accountant thinking, “This isn’t going to work.”
I was at the meeting because Bill Wilkerson, then CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health in the Workplace, had asked me to be. Bill said that Great-West Life wanted to do something for workplace mental health and, as someone in the field doing work through the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) at the time, he thought I could help. But I was skeptical. After all, this was an insurance company and I kept thinking to myself ‘What did they really know or care about workplace mental health?’ I was not at all hopeful that anything would come of this ‘free lunch’, but I listened anyway. I had no idea at the time, that doing so would change my life and potentially, the landscape of workplace mental health itself in Canada.
Despite my resistance, it was my then-boss at CMHA who made the final decision, saying, “We need the extra funding that this project will provide, so you are going to do this.” “This” being the launch of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace (the Centre).
My hesitation was that the work I did could end up being an insurance company product or service for commercial purposes. That approach would go against my own values and would damage my integrity. I vowed to do this for one year and then move on.
Well, as you may have gathered, it’s now 10 years later and my integrity and values are still intact. The reality is that my concerns were unfounded. The people I have had the privilege of working with at Great-West Life were sincere in establishing the Centre for the greater good. As Dave Johnston, former President and COO of Great-West said, “Workplace mental health is not about making the business case. It is about having a passion for your people.”
Jan Belanger, Vice-President of Community Relations at Great-West Life, explained that in the same way the company supports a range of community issues, including health and medical research, Great-West saw advancing workplace mental health as a further way to improve the lives of Canadians.
It was also refreshing for me to hear the words of Mike Schwartz, that soft-spoken accountant with whom I had lunch in 2007 and former Executive Director of the Centre. Mike said, “We are not perfect, either as an employer or a benefits provider. We strive to do the right things, but we do make mistakes. The Centre should provide best practices for all of us to aspire to on our journey of continual improvement.”
And it has been such a journey. From the early days of creating resources like Guarding Minds @ Work, Managing Mental Health Matters, and On the Agenda, to more recent years of developing the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – the opportunities to collaborate with top researchers, academics, and professionals have been amazing and enriching.
It is connecting with those who have the experience of living and working with mental illness that has been the most satisfying. Working Through It, another Centre resource, was a project inspired by someone who experienced mental illness at work. It involved working with many articulate, intelligent and generous individuals who shared how they coped and thrived.
The fact that the Centre makes all of these resources available to anyone, anywhere, at no charge is icing on the cake for me. Not only have I never had to sell anything (as I had originally feared), I also have the satisfaction of knowing that the work the Centre is doing is actually making a difference in workplaces and in the lives of Canadians. Like the person who wrote to the Centre to say, "Working Through It saved my life." This individual said that hearing the stories of those featured in Working Through It gave her hope that she could recover from her mental illness. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Over the years, I have often run into skepticism by those who question any work that an insurance company supports. I understand where that comes from, but on the occasion of the 10th year anniversary of the Centre, I would like to admit just how wrong I was about the company’s intentions. And thank Great-West Life for the privilege of being part of the Centre these past 10 years.
They could have hired someone in marketing or promotions. They could have had a full time employee as the Centre’s program director. Instead they chose me - an independent consultant and a social worker who is an advocate for the positive mental health of employees. Great-West Life and its exceptional people have demonstrated over and over again that this is not about making a business case. It is truly about a passion for employees everywhere.
Happy anniversary! Here’s to many, many more years of making a difference. – Mary Ann Baynton, MSW, RSW, Program Director, Great-West Life Centre in the Workplace.