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Stories by Rona

Mary and Me: What a Nurse Taught a Manager about Mental Illness at Work

Posted September 15, 2014

This article appeared is based on Rona Maynard’s keynote speech to Occupational Health Nurses of Ontario. It was published in the Fall 2012 issue of OOHNA’s journal.

Ever since I stepped down from the Editor’s chair at Chatelaine, I’ve been asked if there’s anything I miss about the job. For close to seven years, I always said, “The techie who looked after my computer. One phone call and he was there!” I’d forgotten the person who looked after me–Mary, the nurse who ran the company health department. She tended my wounds, tested my hearing and booked my colonoscopies. She had an Irish accent that grew thicker after visits home, and a store of jokes so irreverent, she could make me laugh while handing me two bottles of Citro-Mag. Her most memorable line was “I promised never to repeat this so I’m only going to tell you once.”

That particular wisecrack said a lot about Mary. You never had to tell her anything more than once. And what you didn’t say, she’d intuit. It used to take me all of a minute and a half to walk from my airy corner office with its decorator desk to the cramped little rooms where Mary kept tabs on my health and everyone else’s.

Her domain consisted of a featureless waiting room, a cubbyhole with a cot for sleeping off a killer headache, the examination room where she assisted with annual physicals and a workroom that resembled a kitchen, except that the glass-fronted cabinets held bandages and tape instead of canisters and a cookie jar. I occasionally found her behind a metal desk, looking regal in a bright red jacket and crisp white shirt. She didn’t get many chances to sit down. Like a mother with a brood of kids who expect her immediate attention, Mary spent her day on the run. I never wondered how she did it; I just counted on her to keep it up.

When I arrived at her door with a blocked ear and was told she’d be happy to syringe it in half an hour, I felt more disappointed than grateful. Half an hour? Why not right now? Mary was my anchor when I joined Chatelaine in a lesser job after 11 years of freelancing at home in my sweats. Aflame with ambition yet dogged by self-doubt, I had to relearn the rituals of corporate life.

One hot Sunday afternoon, I thought I’d bake a lemon pie to cheer myself up-and while pulling my creation from the oven sprayed hot lemon custard all over my bare thigh. The next morning Mary diagnosed a second-degree burn. I’ve forgotten how many times she dressed that wound while it healed. Toward the end, I could surely have dressed it myself. But I liked having Mary look after me while I sat bare-legged on her stool and we talked like girlfriends. Little by little, I shared my uncertainty and felt lighter for it. In the guise of treating a burn, Mary eased me back into the workaday world.

As a new employee, I’d gone through an orientation that consumed the better part of a morning, with barely a nod to Mary’s role. I drew the obvious conclusion: she had no clout. Like generations of women in so-called “helping professions,” she was trusted but taken for granted. Liked or even loved, but not seen as a leader. I would pass her in the hall, joshing with male executives heading for the boardroom, and I came to see her through their through their eyes, as the resident expert on first aid. I had no idea that she was also the expert on every ailment or preoccupation that threatened someone’s productivity.

When I took the helm at Chatelaine, I discovered the surprise facing every new manager: your plans aren’t worth a jumble of paper clips unless your people are ready for the challenge. One of my best people fell apart before my eyes–a ferociously smart young woman I’ll call Ellen. She embraced the toughest projects with seemingly boundless energy. Then the light went out of her smile. What looked at first like a bad day became a sour week and then a spiritless month in which she rarely emerged from her office. The office door had a window that she covered with paper, as if she were afraid what her colleagues might see. All signs pointed to a mental illness.

I thought I was pretty enlightened when it came to afflictions of the mind. I’d overcome depression myself and told the story in a much-discussed editorial. For countless readers struggling with their own or a loved one’s mental illness, I was a confidante and role model. Yet Ellen’s tailspin reduced me to pussyfooting silence. I feared that to tell her what I’d noticed would offend her professional pride. Much too late, I finally started the conversation. My former star looked at me as if she’d been dreading this moment. Then she admitted that for weeks she’d been sitting a blank computer screen, unable to write or even read. I saw her shame and I ached for her.

Craving guidance, I turned to the HR department. They advised what amounted to compassionate neglect. Was Ellen seeing a therapist? Check (and after years of therapy, she was getting worse). Why not give her some time off to forget about her work load? Check (she took the time but couldn’t get it together to pack a suitcase). The more we denied and deferred, the lower Ellen slid, while worried colleagues asked me what was wrong. One woman spotted Ellen frozen on a curb with tears in her eyes while the light kept changing from green to red and back again. My brilliant young protégée was now incapable of crossing the street. And although I didn’t know it, the window for action was rapidly closing.

The longer a workplace mental illness goes neglected, the poorer the odds for future productivity. None of us realized that Mary should have been in the loop. Yet she somehow picked up on Ellen’s collapse. Maybe it was some nervous comment of mine that hinted of other things unsaid. Maybe it was the slump in Ellen’s shoulders or the sense of unease that had settled on my team like fog.

However the truth came out, Mary was the only one who knew what to do. She connected Ellen with a first-rate therapist who had a track record with difficult cases. As it happened, we’d already wasted too much time. Ellen ended up on long-term disability, drifting away from a job she had loved. Her return to work was problem-plagued and brief. Since then I’ve often asked myself, “What would it have taken to stop the downward spiral?”

Today it seems so obvious. We should have had a protocol on mental illness, championed at the highest level, shaped in a team effort by Mary and HR, and actively promoted throughout the company. Had that been the case, I’d have known what to do when an employee shows signs of mental illness. I’d have known my best ally was right down the hall. And I’d have known how to coach Ellen when she came back to work, longing to fit in but terrified that she couldn’t. In HR, I’d had plenty of coaching on how to terminate someone–but precious little on the kind of conversation that just might have saved Ellen’s job.

Perhaps Mary could have helped me find the words. As a former cancer nurse who had held the hands of the dying, she had learned a thing or two about tough conversations. And like all good nurses, she’d also figured out that compassion doesn’t go very far without an equal dose of common sense. Mary retired years ago, but today’s occupational health nurses have a leadership role to play as the workplace awakens to the toll of mental illness-half a million employees sidelined every day and $51 billion in lost productivity and health care costs. Your expertise can get careers like Ellen’s back on track. Don’t be cast as dispensers of Band-Aids. Make your voices heard. I’ll be cheering for you. And something tells me Mary will be, too.

Posted by Rona

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