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A case for allyship: How Scotiabank is working to reduce the stigma around mental health

The stigma associated with mental health issues in the workplace leave them too often hidden or ignored. We spoke with Jennifer Douglas, executive champion for the Scotiabank Alliance for Mental Health, to learn how one major financial institution is working towards solving the problem.

By Shelley White

Each week, up to half a million Canadians miss a day of work due to mental health issues. But how many would feel comfortable telling their co-workers why they were absent?

Mental health challenges are often a hidden problem in our society, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people experience them. According to a 2008 survey by the Canadian Medical Association, just 50 per cent of Canadians said they would tell friends or coworkers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72 per cent who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer.

This reluctance to be open about mental health often stems from fear of stigma—a fear that is often warranted. A 2014 study, published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported that 64 per cent of Ontario workers said they would be concerned about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness.

“Sadly, we know that many people feel unable to talk openly to their employer about their challenges because they feel they will be stereotyped or held back at work,” says Jennifer Douglas, executive champion for the Scotiabank Alliance for Mental Health (SAMH), one of the company’s many employee resource groups.

Ending that stigma is one of the goals of SAMH, and that’s why it’s being relaunched in October to focus on “allyship,” says Jennifer.

“We all have a role to play in ending the stigma. It’s everybody’s responsibility to create a supportive environment for both employees and customers,” she says. “Most of us know family, friends or coworkers that may suffer in silence. We’re trying to appeal to those who have mental health challenges as well as those who support friends and family who do.”

Jennifer, who is also senior vice president of credit cards at Scotiabank, says she was spurred on to become executive champion for SAMH because her own circle of friends was touched by mental illness.

“I’ve always had the philosophy that we should have a respectful and supportive environment for employees and customers. But, like most others, I do know people that have had mental health challenges and tragically last spring, a friend of mine lost her daughter to suicide,” says Jennifer. “So that was a real catalyst for me to become a champion for mental health at Scotiabank.”

SAMH meets regularly through the year, and Jennifer says they have three goals in mind: to raise awareness of mental health, to end the stigma, and to provide training, assistance, and resources to managers so they can support their employees.

“We all have a role to play in ending the stigma. It’s everybody’s responsibility to create a supportive environment for both employees and customers.”

One of the most important ways to raise awareness is to encourage people to speak more openly about mental health, notes Jennifer.

“It needs to be a regular, ongoing conversation and not something we just talk about once a year,” she says. “People talk about physical health challenges they have, but people don’t talk about mental health in the same way. By having more, frequent conversation, it will make people feel more comfortable talking about it.”

Another way to be an ally is to be mindful of using inclusive language. It’s commonplace to hear terms like “crazy” used in flippant ways that can be hurtful. Allies can stand up and speak out when these kinds of labels are being tossed around carelessly, says Jennifer.

“I’ve taken on the role of executive champion for only a few months, and even in that amount of time, I’ve become more aware of these types of terms. If someone was using them, I would address it and give them an opportunity to switch to a better word.”

In addition to SAMH, Scotiabank offers other ways to support employees when it comes to mental health. The bank has an internal website dedicated to the well-being of employees, featuring LifeSpeak, a health and wellness platform that provides instant access to expert advice on all kinds of topics, including mental health challenges and ideas on how to better cope with them. Scotiabank also offers a comprehensive benefits plan that includes employer-paid coverage for mental health care expenses including those related to both treatment and prevention, an employee and family assistance program that offers professional counselling for challenges like workplace stress and anxiety and access to experts to help navigate the elder and cancer care systems in Canada.

“We do believe that inclusion makes us stronger, and at Scotiabank we want to ensure we’re creating a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment,” says Jennifer.


World Mental Health Day is October 10th, and Scotiabank is planning to mark that week with events and activities to promote their resources and create a dialogue about mental health. As supporters of national charity Partners for Mental Health, Scotiabank will be leveraging their “Not Myself Today” campaign and encouraging employees to take part. They will also host an internal panel event for employees in Toronto.

“We’re going to have topics like myth-busting, a panel discussion on success factors for a healthy mind, and an overview of some of the resources available to help and support with mental health issues,” says Jennifer.

Even more important than once-a-year events though is encouraging an ongoing conversation about mental health. It’s something all of us can do, says Jennifer.

“I think if we can encourage an open dialogue about mental health, we can break down the stigma,” she says. “But I think it’s going to be a journey. It’s not going to happen overnight.”