How nabs provided first aid in a mental health pandemic

As vice-president of people and culture for No Fixed Address and its U.S. division Mischief USA, Linda Colozza has seen first-hand the enormous impact the pandemic is having on employees’ mental wellbeing.

People’s personal circumstances vary widely, with some living and working in near total isolation, while others are living and working in multi-generational households, or juggling work and childcare. Regardless of their situation, all are sharing the burden of elevated stress and anxiety, and the spectre of total burnout is very real.

“I don’t know if there’s any one person that doesn’t have some sort of difficult situation, but it’s the isolation and the burnout I hear of the most,” said Colozza. “Before, having a personal day meant you could actually be home and not necessarily think about work, but now your personal time is at home, which is also where you’re working.

“The separation between the two is becoming very foggy, which is a struggle for some people.”

Colozza is one of 250 people from 73 companies in Canada’s marketing, media and advertising sector that has achieved mental health first aid (MHFA) certification through the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The initiative was launched by nabs in November in response to the “perfect storm” that has disrupted people’s professional lives.

“The engagement has been fantastic, because everyone in the industry is so concerned about mental health,” said Louise Berube, director of allocations and services with nabs, and a longtime champion of MHFA.

Nabs announced the milestone just ahead of Mental Health Week (May 3-9). Over the next month, the non-profit will introduce MHFA refresher courses enabling those who have received the certification to work together on case studies to hone their skills and practice what they’ve learned in a group setting.

Berube had originally hoped that 90 people would complete the training course. But while that felt like an audacious goal pre-COVID, she now expects between 400 and 500 to have completed the training before the end of the year.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada defines MHFA as “the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem, experiencing a mental health crisis, or a worsening of their mental health.” It was first developed in Australia in 2001, and has since spread to 25 countries.

It was first brought to Canada by the Alberta Mental Health Board in 2006, and has continued to grow steadily since then with more than 500,000 Canadians trained in MHFA since 2007.

Individuals trained in the program gain increased knowledge of the signs, symptoms and risk factors of mental health; decrease the social distance between themselves and someone with a mental health problem; increase their confidence to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis; and experienced increased mental wellness themselves.

“The [MHFA] program is extremely valuable to prepare anyone to support individuals with front line mental health conversations,” said Lisa Pietersen, VP of human resources for Wavemaker and one of the people to complete the MHFA certification. Training typically consists of an online training module and quiz, followed by two half-day interactive sessions with a trained facilitator and a breakout group case study session.

“It helps to inform on what the signs are of deteriorating mental health and how to have the conversations, provide guidance and if necessary refer people to professionals,” added Pietersen. “I definitely feel much more prepared to support and have effective conversations with anyone in need, and ensure that I am practising self-care.”

Elise Brosseau, VP of human resources and administration with Montreal-based digital agency Vortex Solution, said the nabs notification about the MHFA certification came at the perfect time, as she saw some of the company’s 80 employees struggling to adjust to the new reality of the pandemic.

“I work in HR and I’m good with people, but I don’t have diploma in psychology, so there was a limit to what I could do,” she said. “You see people you like and work with every day really not feeling good, and you feel kind of powerless. [The MHFA certification gave me] extra tools to better help employees and make sure they were okay or doing better.”

While HR representatives within companies are the logical sources for MHFA training, Berube said the goal was to ensure that leaders and peers also received training. “Not everyone will go to HR with mental health concerns,” she said. “Lots of times they’ll turn to their peers for their support, so we felt it was very important for people to have some kind of formal training.” As many as nine people have received MHFA training in some organizations, she said.

Those who complete the training receive a badge identifying them as MHFA certified that can be appended to their email signature, as well as a banner for their LinkedIn profile that lets co-workers, friends, etc. know they have achieved the certification.

Berube said MFHA is especially important in the high-pressure world of marketing and advertising where employees are often more stressed and anxious compared with those in other industry sectors—a situation that has been further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Nabs’ 24-hour support line has provided assistance to more than 615 people since the beginning of the pandemic, and Berube said the crisis calls tend to be more acute and complex than they were pre-pandemic; nearly two-thirds of calls are directly related to COVID and its professional impact, she said. Its digital health and wellness platform LifeSpeak saw 9,169 sessions between March 2020 and March 2021, a year-over-year increase of 366%.

Nabs also began providing free access to the clinically moderated online peer-to-peer counselling service Togetherall for English Canada in March, and plans to launch a French-language version in the fall.

“This is a mental health pandemic,” said Berube. “Everyone’s in the same storm, but in different boats… so our goal was to raise awareness and get people trained and certified.”

Colozza said she now feels more confident in her ability to interact and counsel employees who are experiencing greater stress and anxiety. “Being in HR, you often feel like ‘I have to solve this and make it right.’ Some of it was understanding that active listening is sometimes the best. I don’t know if I’m fully certified after seven hours of training, but I think you only become better at these things through practice.

“If somebody came to me, I would feel much more prepared than before, even in terms of the language to use.”

Chris Powell