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Morneau Shepell’s Employers Connect: Inspiring Healthy Minds at Work with the Headway Program

We were recently invited to speak at Morneau Shepell’s Employers Connect event in Toronto. Below is an edited version of Jennifer’s talk.

Why do we care about sharing our story? Because stories inspire and we want to inspire you to think about that one concrete action you will take when you return to your office today.

We will be the first to admit, I am not a mental health expert. But we are mental health advocates. We’ve lived alongside this illness for a while and witnessed first-hand the toll it can take on our best and brightest, their loved ones, and their colleagues.

Our story today is about Luke, the founder of Sklar Wilton & Associates. Before I speak about him as a businessman,I want you to picture him as the loving husband of 33 years and devoted father to three beautiful daughters that he was.

Luke was the stereotypical entrepreneur. Larger than life, he filled up the room when he walked in. He had incredible drive and passion. He was smart – really smart.

But what really distinguished him was the way he connected with people. He didn’t discriminate between the receptionist and the CEO. He was genuinely interested in getting to know everyone.

Over our company’s 33 year history, he invited four partners to join the leadership team. Today, we are 35 people. This might sound a bit boastful, so forgive me. We’re a special company with a close-knit team. Not just declaring it, we’ve received numerous awards for our workplace culture including being named the #1 small privately held business in Canada, and a Great Place to Work for Inclusion. We’re really proud of these awards because we know how important feeling you belong is to mental health.

The company Luke built has worked on some of the thorniest business problems and his smarts helped many of Canada’s biggest firms succeed – Molson Coors, Canada Bread/ Bimbo, Canadian Tire, Mars, Four Seasons to name a few. 

I say this to point out NO ONE is immune to ailing mental health. 

In 2016, Luke was inducted into the American Marketing Association’s Marketing Hall of Legends. When the call came, he was 6 months into his diagnosis of severe depression. He had been open with the Sklar Wilton team about his depression from the onset but, at that podium in 2016, he took the opportunity to share his illness with hundreds of business leaders as his witnesses.

Luke’s illness continued for 3 years, during which time he was in and out of hospital being diagnosed and treated by some of the best doctors in North America. He dutifully followed every possible treatment protocol, many more than once. He was no longer able to contribute to the business but when he was well enough, he came to the office for short visits. Sometimes, we’d go to him for walks, lunches, or coffees.

Supporting Luke and his family was a big part of our day. The partners were in contact with him every day, whether by text, phone, or some sort of visit. Further, we had to cover his work, care for our team, deal with insurance, and handle everything else that goes along with running a business.

It felt like an invisible assault. Luke was the real victim but managing through a situation like this is kind of like juggling with your eyes covered in a bouncy castle. We kept hoping and praying we’d get him back, that something would work.

Sadly, May 12, 2018, we lost Luke to suicide.

It was a shock to most people. How could depression take someone so full of light, so gregarious, so passionate, so smart? For those of us close to his suffering and his deep pain, it was understandable. Devastating, heart-breaking, but understandable.

But, like so many who have faced tragedy, we couldn’t let it be in vain.

From a crisis management perspective, we took many steps to support our team, communicate with our clients, and take care of Luke’s family. Each member of our company was telephoned on that fateful Saturday and, by Monday morning, a grief counsellor was available to help us navigate our grief. (In hindsight, having a grief counsellor on speed dial is a good thing.)

But, once we got through the first few weeks, we knew we needed to invest even more than we already had to support mental wellness at our company. We know that 1 in 5 people at any given time are dealing with a mental health issue. Suffice it to say that Luke was not the only one at our company with mental health challenges.

We immediately got going on three key initiatives. First, we reviewed and updated the benefits plan with an Employee and Family Assistance Program through Morneau Shepell, a flexible spending account, and a flexible workplace. Flexible was key because we are all at different stages of life and what enablesone person to live “wholey” is different from another.

Second, we reinvigorated our Spirit 32 program with additional content. We had already immersed ourselves in content around mindfulness, energy management (e.g., nutrition, movement, sleep), and now we added content on brain health, resiliency, and coping.

Third, we invested in mental health training for our team. This included leadership certification training, in-depth training for managers, and more general training for the full team.

We were on our way to supporting these 35 amazing people and their families but we wanted to have Luke-type impact, we wanted to go broader.

We wanted to help more workplaces embrace best mental health practices.

On May 13, a year and a day after his death, we launched Headway. Headway is a movement to help companies create workplaces that embrace best mental health practices. Our target is C-level decision-makers and culture leaders in companies across Canada (e.g. CEO, CPO, CMO) as well as future business leaders who are interested in creating better, more productive workplaces.

Close to 500 people attended the launch that night. It was informative, respectful, caring, energized and approachable. Rather than a traditional keynote speaker, we engaged Colin Mochrie who is a Canadian improv comedian, and Michael Landsberg who is a well-known Canadian sportscaster to act out workplace scenarios. Think of it as bloopers for how to handle mental health in the workplace. After each botched scenario, an expert panel commented on how the situation could have been handled better. Luke would have loved it.

In this way, we planted seeds for best practices that each attendee could adopt back in their workplaces. It was fun and engaging.

In fact, it set the strategy for Headway. Sharing stories is the best way to open minds and create action. It humanizes a difficult topic and enables the first or next step.

To help make the first step as easy as possible, we created a road map for companies to figure out where to get started. We partnered with Great Place to Work and their Trust Index Employee Survey to build for a Best Practices Guide for the work place, called Trust as a Foundation for Mentally Healthy Workplaces.

Since the launch, we have heard so many amazing stories from our partners.

For example, Fred Landtmeters from Molson Coors, shares that his senior leadership team has established an employee committee to challenge stigma and provide tools to support mental wellness. 

The Canadian team is leading the initiative and it’s now being adopted globally.

Adidas created an open environment with the “adiChats” platform where courageous individuals can share personal stories of how they cope with depression and anxiety to inspire conversation and connection with their colleagues that spans beyond work itself. It’s a live event which is broadcast to remote workers.

WestJet, a company where safety is risked if mental health is compromised, has a series of initiatives underway. One of the more visible initiatives that helps to build greater awareness, reduce stigma, and foster safe and supportive culture is their involvement in “Not myself today” by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

As we heard from Bell Canada which is now celebrating ten years of Bell Let’s Talk day, Every Action Counts.

As we reflect on our own organisations, what specific next step can we take? What step can you take?

You can pledge today. It might be a personal pledge to make time in your calendar for a personal check-in or to share your own mental health challenges with your team. Or, it might be a more tangible pledge such as allocating budget to conduct a workplace assessment, develop a strategy based on the assessment, and or schedule training for all employees. No matter how small it may seem, every pledge is important.

Even better, commit to your pledge publicly. Take a picture of it and post it on your LinkedIn page or in the Headway LinkedIn group. We’d love to see it and we know it will inspire other people to also make pledges.

Thank you for supporting healthy minds at work.


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