Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria

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Campus life: Are you prepared?

As September draws closer, students all over Canada are preparing for their first year of university or college. Leaving home, new classes, new friends and new activities, it can be a lot to handle. While attending post-secondary school is an exciting chapter in anyone’s life, it can also be a transitional period for students experiencing it all for the first time.

 Student Life

Moving out on your own is exciting and full of opportunities, but at times it can be lonely. Clinical psychologist Dr. Christopher Thurber co-produced a study on homesickness in university students, and found that while all students miss something about home when they’re away, 5-10% of post-secondary students develop intense homesickness, which has an effect on behaviour.

Homesickness isn’t the only threat to first year students’ mental health. Students have to deal with a more demanding curriculum, adapt to new roommates, new classmates and learn how to take care of themselves for the first time ever. I remember the culture shock I experienced during my first few weeks of classes at York University, and that was back when university wasn’t as expensive, programs were less competitive, and moving away from home was not the thing to do!

Students who choose to live at home during post-secondary schooling are not exempt from mental health issues either. While staying home saves students and families from the financial burden of accommodation, it can be challenging to watch friends go off and start a new life while they remain at home with their parents who may still treat them as children.

Mental health issues in universities and colleges are not new. Why do you think Reading Week was introduced? It was created in the 1960s to allow students a reprieve from their demanding curriculum. Since then, mental health issues have grown exponentially. In 2011, Ryerson University’s centre for student development and counselling found that there was a 200% increase in students reporting a crisis situation. I was initially shocked by this statistic, but a Maclean’s report about mental health on campus provided some background on this issue. They found that more students are enrolling in school with previous mental health issues than ever before, and now these existing issues are being intensified.

We developed The Student Assistance Program (affectionately known as SAP) at Aspiria to augment what schools are currently providing to assist students seeking help with their mental heath on campus. Our goal is to help students thrive while at school and build resiliency skills to prepare them for graduation and the workforce

Attending college or university certainly has its challenges for students, but it’s important to remember that the experience is also exciting, rewarding, and will help shape who they become in life.

So how can we help students adjust to their 1st year of college or university ? Here are a number of tips for students on how to stay mentally well:

  • Parents should encourage their children to work summer jobs to create a sense of independence and responsibility they will carry with them to school.
  • If students are moving away for school, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the campus prior to starting classes. This will allow for less of a culture shock when school begins.
  • Join clubs and social groups. Clubs are a great way to meet friends and people who have similar interests. International students can find other students who have recently moved to their campus .
  • Seek help with the school’s counsellors or find out if a SAP is offered. These programs are in place to help students address their mental health issues and are always accessible.

 

1st year on campus can be a difficult adjustment for students. What additional strategies can you think of that can make the transition to campus life easier for students?

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What Does Your Company’s Dress Code Say About Your Workplace Culture?

A recent decision by Starbucks to allow its employees to wear any hair colour they like has sparked the dress code discussion again. Dress codes are not one-size-fits-all anymore; they really should reflect your company’s workplace culture just as Starbucks feels that this move balances the demands of employees with its brand and reputation.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past that all I’d see in corporate offices were formally-dressed men and women, regardless of their positions or the type of company they worked for. This rigid corporate philosophy has now gone the way of the floppy disc. In fact, according to the 2016 Employee Benefit Survey from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, approximately 50% of workplaces have a business casual dress code in place, 22% of companies offer a casual dress code for the entire week, and 40% enforce a casual dress code on Fridays only.

Does allowing more casual attire in the workplace increase or decrease productivity?

I’ve read many studies on this issue and there is no clear-cut answer. There are those who believe that if employees are allowed to dress casually, they’ll be more comfortable and happier and therefore more productive. Others believe that casual clothing results in a casual work ethic and therefore employees will be less productive. One study sponsored by The Master’s College in California published the following conclusions: “There is an effect on… performance in the workplace because of casual dress… Casual dress has equally positive and negative effects, and… dress codes may or may not be necessary for professional performance.” In reality, there is no way to predict how a dress code will affect the performance of your employees.

Here are some points to consider when determining the dress code for your company:

  • The nature of your business – financial institutions and law offices will typically have much more formal dress codes than web designer agencies where most coders dress like Mark Zuckerberg. Also, do you regularly see clients at your office? The answer to this question may determine what is appropriate office attire. Perhaps you consider two dress codes, an internal one for the office when you are not seeing clients and an external dress code when you are visiting clients.
  • Ask for input from staff through a survey – Just as Starbucks changed their policy on hair colour to meet employee demands, I recommend that you consult with your employees when establishing a dress code, to consider their requests.
  • Be clear what is not appropriate and indicate why – wearing flip-flops to the office (more appropriate for a beach), for example, may actually be a safety hazard.
  • A trial basis of a new policy – to see the effects, positive or negative, consider a 3 to 6 week trial and ask for feedback through another survey. Checking in with your staff can make them feel heard and appreciated.

What do you think your company’s dress code says about your workplace culture? Would you consider changing it?


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Why Laughing at Work is a Good Thing

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How many times have you written or read a job description that includes a sense of humour in the job skill requirements? I see it quite often and it makes perfect sense. In fact 96% of the executives surveyed by Accountemps believed that people with a sense of humour do better at their jobs than those who have little or no sense of humour and 89% of CEOs believe all things being equal, they’d rather hire someone with a good sense of humour. Humour in the workplace can provide many benefits to your company.

 

What can humour do for your company?

I believe that humour in the workplace is quite often misunderstood. I’m not suggesting that you launch into a comedic stand-up routine at the start of your next meeting or encourage your staff to play practical jokes on each other; but giving your employees permission to relax and laugh can go a long way. Humour in the workplace can:

  • Attract employees
  • Improve employee retention
  • Reduce employee churn rates
  • Improve employee morale
  • Reduce stress and boredom
  • Boost engagement and well-being
  • Reduce employee absenteeism
  • Improve creativity and collaboration
  • Improve productivity

How you can add humour in your workplace

  • Call a meeting specifically to discuss adding humour to your workplace and let everyone brainstorm ways to do it. After the group has come up with some great ideas, add the best ones to the calendar on a monthly or quarterly basis. It’ll be great for morale to have fun things to look forward to.
  • Create a humour committee who will pursue initiatives that add humour to your workplace. Many companies already have social committees that plan events or team sports like baseball leagues so why not a humour committee?
  • At team meetings have everyone bring in an industry related comic or funny story to share. Vote on the best one and then post it in the lunch room.
  • At team meetings, have a spontaneous brainstorm session. Invite staff to be creative, think outside box, and come up with a “crazy funny” idea for the company. You never know, there could be a new line of revenue waiting to be hatched for your business!
  • Have fun coming up with conference/meeting room names. At Facebook, employees vote on the name of the conference room in their designated area.
  • Give your staff permission to be spontaneous and have fun at work. As numerous studies have shown employees that have fun at work are happier and more productive.

Business sometimes is too serious. Happy employees are productive employees and that’s good business. Do you have a culture of “humour” at your workplace? What changes can you make to add more humour to your workplace?


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Staying Motivated During Uncertain Times

Aspiria-Motivation (1)Have you noticed how the news channels only seem to show tragedies around the world? I remember when an unexpected event would make headlines, and we were shocked by how horrific the situation was, and how many lives were taken. Today’s news headlines seem to be filled with airport bombings, gun massacres, immigrants fleeing en masse for their safety on lifeboats, uncontrollable forest fires, planes disappearing off radars, and stabbings in our neighbourhoods. The reports from all media are continuous, 24/7, and we are supposed to process the devastation and get on with our daily lives without interruption to our psyche?

As employers, you may have employees who are feeling the effects of all this chaos trickling down and affecting their ability to function at work at their best. You may observe this as more frequent sick days, employees arriving late or leaving early, and not asking for or taking more vacation time. Others may decline attending office parties, staff lunches, and other events or meetings with coworkers; difficulty dealing with problems, setting and meeting deadlines, maintaining personal relationships, managing staff, participating in meetings, and making presentations.

Depending on the individual employee, they can start to develop Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). These individuals may not feel that they are actively worrying, but this exaggerated fear can cause constant stress, and can stop them from living life fully.

Some signs of GAD can include:

  • Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
  • An unrealistic view of problems
  • Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating, and easily distracted from daily chores
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Being easily startled

How can you help? Be diligent in providing reassurance about their performance. As an employer, you can support your staff by encouraging an open-door philosophy to have a conversation about how they are doing and where they can find help. Show your support through posters in the lunchroom or through intranet communications, promoting self-help assistance or external resources such as the EAP.

Recognizing feeling of fear in ourselves and those around us, and supporting each other in unsure times, will help to motivate, rather than paralyze, creating a path to living life to its fullest.


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The Importance of Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace

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Like you, I too was shocked to hear the news on June 12, 2016 of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. There was no question, this was a hate crime.

Unfortunately hate crimes have woven themselves into the fabric of our culture. They’re all too common on our streets, in our workplaces and in our schools. No one is immune. Hate crimes are committed on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or national origin; none of them rational reasons. We can’t begin to understand a hate crime because a rational mind can’t comprehend an irrational thought process.

How can we combat hate crimes?

With over 20 years in the EAP business, I share the sentiment of Mayor Dyer when he called for the city to come together. “We need to support each other. We need to love each other. And we will not be defined by a hateful shooter,” he said.

It is so difficult, yet essential that in the face of adversity we are resilient and stay strong. To combat hate crimes, it’s imperative that we create diverse, inclusive and supportive environments in our communities, workplaces and schools. Everyone has a right to feel safe.

Five Tips for Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce

  1. Identify new talent pools
  • Advertise postings in different media than where you typically post for new hires
  1. Offer diversity training
  • Lunch and Learns are a great way to educate your staff on our cultural and social differences
  1. Organize employee resource and affinity groups
  • Encourage the creation of “communities” within your organization that allows people with similar backgrounds and experiences to network, mentor, and socialize
  1. Support employee development
  • Staff of varying backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems bring a range of work styles and perspectives to the table, in turn enhancing creativity and efficiency
  1. Accommodate employee needs
  • Creating an open environment that welcomes diversity, whether it be through posters in the office to sharing company community partnership successes on social media, encourages staff to come forward with requests for accommodation

In addition to “doing the right thing”, organizations that have embraced diversity have shown gains in employee engagement, effort and retention. With workforces becoming increasingly global, accommodating our differences can create an inclusive environment that is more resilient and one where everyone can feel safe.

I leave you with these words from one of the great leaders of our time:

If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.

John F. Kennedy

 

Does your organization embrace diversity and/or offer diversity training in your workplace? Does your organization practice inclusion?

 

 


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Keeping Your Cool in the Workplace this Summer

10459716_xxl_1600_536_c1_c_c_0_0_1The warmth of the summer months beckon us to spend time with family and friends outdoors and away from work to enjoy these precious days of sunshine. However, there are challenges to maintaining our mental well-being when these days come. I would like to share with you some facts about working in the summertime, and how you can help your staff feel their best.

Spreading the hours around

A study noted in the Huffington Post found that 26 per cent of Canadians are not using paid vacation days provided by their employer. The majority of those said it was because they felt they had too much work to do and taking time away would leave them behind in their work. Others are saving their vacation days for emergencies, and still others claimed to not want a vacation. By encouraging staff to take time away, even for a staycation, the benefits in creativity can be reaped when returning with a fresh view and feeling more relaxed. Time away also decreases burnout and subsequently can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Covering for others

According to CMHA Ontario, the summer months of vacation time can be a cause of stress for those filling in for others in their absence. Whether it is on the assembly line or in an office, taking on the job of another, often one that they may have little experience doing, can make those employees feel anxious and stressed. When personal life stressors occur during this time, the pressure at work can seem overwhelming. To make vacations work for everyone, discuss with everyone the upcoming workload so you can plan deadlines around vacation dates. Knowing who is on vacation and when will also help you plan your projects. Ensure staff that is covering for others are clearly aware of new tasks and responsibilities, and check in to see how manageable the workload is while other staff is away.

Seasonal Depression

Seasonal Affective Disorder typically affects some in the winter months with shorter and colder days, but there are some individuals who are affected by depression in the summertime. Increased humidity is unbearable for some, who may stay in their air-conditioned home to avoid the heat, and are likely less active as a result. When it’s too hot to cook, many choose to eat out or order in and poor food choices are often made. Changes in routine and schedules can bring on feelings of depression, such as having bored school children or university students now at home. Financial strain with camp and entertainment costs is increased, as well as the costs of going on a destination vacation. Wearing shorts or bathing suits can increase feelings of poor body image, and may inhibit some from joining friends at the beach or poolside. Some signs of summer depression to look for in your staff could include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, weight loss or gain, and feelings of anxiety. One way to stave off symptoms of depression is to maintain physical fitness, so encourage employees to use their employee discount at the air-conditioned gym, even for the summer months. Another way to maintain mental wellness is to stay connected, so hosting a BBQ for staff to enjoy each other’s company outside of the workplace and engage with each other in a social environment helps build camaraderie, minimize isolation and enhance work relationships.

I hope you take the time to enjoy your summer, with your co-workers, family and friends!


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How to Support Your Employees Struggling with Mental Health Issues

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During this month of Mental Health Awareness campaigns, I thought it would be a perfect time to shed light on how to better support those employees suffering with mental health issues.

These days, it seems that our work life is more hectic than ever before. Stress from work is one of the largest contributors to your workplace mental health. Although there can be inherent stress in many roles, many employees do not feel comfortable discussing their mental health at work. Of Ontario workers, only 60% said they would tell their managers if they were suffering from a mental health issue. Your employees spend a significant amount of time at work, so it is important that they can feel safe and supported. I have outlined below some ways that we can start the conversation and offer a welcoming environment to staff who may be struggling.

Mental health education in the workplace

Living with mental health issues can be challenging and overwhelming, and often the stress in explaining to others how you are feeling can be a source of concern. Posting facts and information about mental health in your staffroom is one way that co-workers can learn about how others may be feeling, while bringing the topic out in the open and encouraging others to come forward.

Meeting to discuss concerns

The most important thing you can do if an employee opens up about their mental health is to be compassionate and empathic. As a manager, your skills in being honest, professional and caring can minimize the stress your employee may be feeling. Initially highlighting the employee’s strengths and contributions shows how much they are valued, and then asking open-ended questions that will encourage an employee to request support or accommodation would be helpful. Ensure that you are ‘in-the-moment’ listening, not counseling or probing, and raise the possibility of providing accommodations if needed at this time.

Provide resources and follow-up

Offering resources such as the contact information for your organization’s EAP provider as well as community resources is another way that you can show support to the employee. Although the employee may not disclose a problem to you, they may contact the EAP provider or other professionals and request a workplace accommodation at a later date. Reach out to the employee in a short, reasonable amount of time, to see how they are doing and, if there is further assistance needed to help them do their best at work and in their personal life.

We can all play a part in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and it can start with a few kind words and a helping hand. I encourage you to connect with others that may be struggling silently to show that you care.

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