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Kanye West’s mental-health issues remind leaders to pay attention in-house

Kanye West performs during the closing ceremony of the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto on Sunday, July 26, 2015.

Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When Kanye West cancelled his world tour in November and was hospitalized for exhaustion, his band, backup singers, roadies and managers all headed home. When a mental-health crisis strikes the boss, it affects everyone. Likewise, a leader's knowledge and approach to depression, anxiety, stress and addiction flows through the entire hierarchy.

Mental-health problems cost the Canadian economy $51-billion annually and 500,000 people don't go to work weekly because of mental-health issues according to organizations such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

How can companies make a dent in those numbers?

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"It can be done, and it can be done without damaging the sustainability of the business," says Mary Ann Baynton, executive director of Mindful Employer Canada, based in Waterdown, Ont. Here are six steps leaders can take to address mental-health issues in their companies.

1. Measure the costs

It is easy to brush aside those mental-health stats – who knows if they apply to your company anyway? "Leaders should look at their data," says Sarika Gundu, national director for the Workplace Mental Health Program with the Canadian Mental Health Association. Get numbers from human resources, your employee assistance program and others to reveal your turnover and absentee rate, reason for disability claims and prescription-drug use among employees and compare them to in-house and industry benchmarks. (Consider getting more information via the free, evidence-based tools from Guarding Minds @ Work, a project from Simon Fraser University, that assess workplaces and employee experiences.) If you start programs – massages at work, healthy food, lunch-and-learns – track their success via data.

2. Lose the Type A talk

Dog-eat-dog workplace atmospheres, where competition is all, breeds stress. Underlying conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety can worsen due to killer schedules and all-hours e-mails, and toxic work conditions can trigger new problems, too. In fact, there are emerging legal and regulatory mandates for employers to take responsibilities in the area of psychological health and safety, according to SFU's Guarding Minds @ Work. "It just comes down to how we treat each other on a day-to-day basis in the workplace, not about investing in big programs," says Ms. Baynton. Company leaders who value respect, understanding and empathy, and build that into company culture, can help people cope. A deadline is still a deadline, and work has to be excellent, but no one has to have a meltdown over it.

3. Stop assuming

An employee who is suddenly turning in substandard work or taking days off is not necessarily a defiant slacker who needs the boot. Lynn Brown, managing director at Brown Consulting Group in Toronto, notes that mental-health issues are a hidden disability. "If you're not aware of mental-health issues, you might manage a person without taking this into account." The legal requirements are often difficult for employers to navigate, ranging from privacy considerations for the employee to an obligation to provide a safe workplace for the employer. If an employee takes a leave or asks for accommodation, Ms. Brown says you can get a third-party adjudicator, who can get full disclosure, to vet terms so you know for sure no one is taking advantage and that an accommodation truly suits.

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4. Champion emotional intelligence

Emotionally intelligent managers can help manage stress in their teams and catch early signs of distress in their employees. "If managing the psychological health and safety of employees is part of what a leader expects [from managers], they have to measure it," says Ms. Baynton. She recommends using free online assessment tools to measure how well managers can empathize, listen and manage their own emotions, as part of performance reviews. Department data – turnovers, complaints – and subsequent 360 reviews can track how a manager's EI is improving.

5. Read up

The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace offers guidance for making companies more supportive of mental-health issues with an eye to better productivity. Your HR team should read it, and so should you.

6. Model resilience

"Everyone tries to be a superhero at certain levels, but the truth is we can all break," says Ms. Gundu. Effective leaders take care of themselves, and have the gym bag, evening-and-weekend e-mail policy and vacation schedule to prove it. "Leaders may not realize it, but they set the tone when it comes to one's work pace," says Ms. Gundu. When a top player practices self-care, it gives others permission to have balance in their lives, too. This is particularly important for those moving up the ladder, who can start to envision leadership differently. Ms. Gundu says an organization's leaders should use company resources, such as those offered through an employee assistance program, to get through their own challenging times. The healthiest companies are healthy from the bottom right to the top.

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