Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Maintaining Strong Mental Health During the Holidays

gift-2870161_1920As 2017 comes to an end, we begin to reflect on our year and prepare for the holidays. No doubt you’ve heard the festive music and seen the bright decorations by now. And if you’ve seen any advertisements, they probably feature smiling faces and holiday joy. But with so much cheer all around, this time of year can be a serious strain on one’s mental health. With personal and professional social events to plan and attend, the holidays can intensify feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. That’s why I want to discuss some common causes of stress and anxiety this holiday season, and share tips on how to minimize the negative effects that may result.

Be Careful Not To Take On Too Much

One of the most challenging aspects of the holidays is the pressure to commit significant amounts of money and time. Between gift giving and spending time with family and friends, sometimes it can feel like you’ve bit off more than you can chew. As such, it’s important to commit to both a budget and a schedule this holiday season. By planning a budget in advance and sticking to it, you can avoid unnecessary expenses that will get you into financial trouble.

Furthermore, creating a schedule will ensure that you find the perfect balance between attending holiday events and having personal time for rest and relaxation. Also, don’t feel bad if you can’t attend every party or event you’ve been invited to! People are generally understanding, and they’re likely in the exact same boat as you.

Enjoy the Time You Spend With Family

The holidays offer quality time to spend with family while many have time off from work or school. In certain cases, spending the holidays with family can bring feelings of tension, stress, and sadness. For some families, there may be specific personalities or past differences that could lead to conflict between family members. If this rings true for you, it can be helpful to set boundaries. Try to stay away from certain topics or situations that could become heated, and don’t be afraid to speak up or excuse yourself from a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable.

For other families, the holidays can act as an unfortunate reminder of the loss of a loved one. While the holiday season may be a difficult time, it also offers the opportunity to create new traditions, especially those that honour a loved one and incorporate their interests.

Don’t Forget Your Healthy Habits

Everyone has their own traditions of how they spend the holidays, but there’s usually a couple of activities we indulge in more than at any other time of the year: food and drink, and sometimes, lots of both. While I’m hardly one to take issue with some of the tasty holiday dishes or festive beverages at this time of year, the indulgence can create feelings of guilt and stress.

Try to remember a few healthy habits. For one, eat a healthy snack right before you go to a holiday event. This trick will ensure that you fit in a healthy option, but will also lessen your hunger and thus your urge to indulge in sweets! Pace yourself when it comes to participating in alcohol consumption. Remember that alcohol numbs the senses, as it is a depressant. And of course, I would be remiss not to remind you to always have a designated driver when you’ve been drinking alcohol. Additionally, incorporate some physical activity on your days off. Winter sports or even a walk outside are great forms of exercise to balance out some of the hearty meals you’ll be eating.

While stress and anxiety may feel inevitable during this time of year, it’s important to remember the happiness that comes with it as well. There’s bound to be positive moments in exchanging gifts, enjoying a delicious meal, and spending time with family and friends that you haven’t seen in a while. So if you keep these positives in mind, and follow the aforementioned tips to stay healthy this season, you’ll be sure to enjoy the holiday cheer this December. Happy Holidays!

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How Creativity Improves Mental Health and Wellness

creativityMany students notice that the creativity they once had diminishes as they begin post-secondary education. It seems our schools of higher learning teach students to follow the rules, learn, memorize and repeat, conform, and measure their performance by taking standardized tests. Creativity is squeezed out as the pressure to excel on exams becomes the driving force. This, however, is counterintuitive to future demands in the workforce and the mental health and wellness of our students.

A 2010 IBM study, as reported in the Newsweek article “Creativity is the New Black”, reported that not only will creativity play a critical role in the future success of a corporation, but creativity is also regarded as a core competency for those in a leadership role. Unfortunately, education is killing the creativity of our students and leaving many of them anxiety-ridden and stressed out. What are we doing to improve the mental health and wellness of our students?

Tapping into your creativity for improved mental health and wellness

I wanted to share with you the many positive benefits creative expression has in maintaining wellness, whether through art, music, reading, writing, crafts, colouring, knitting, sewing, pottery, gardening, or dancing. Creative expression can:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Decrease depressive symptoms
  • Reduce distress and negative emotions
  • Boost the immune system
  • Increase self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment
  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Increase happiness

How does creativity improve mental health and wellness?

The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% of them are exactly the same, day in and day out (Cleveland Clinic). Immersing yourself in a creative activity produces an almost meditative state where your mind is so engrossed in what you’re doing that you temporarily forget all of your troubles and worries. The goal is no different from meditation, mindfulness, or yoga: in order to find calm, peace, and happiness in one’s life, the focus needs to be on one’s inner self (not external stimuli). This can be achieved only by becoming disciplined in an activity (eg. creativity) that will naturally lessen the importance and therefore impact of those thousands of thoughts we experience everyday. Neuroscientists have been studying many forms of creativity and finding that activities like cooking, drawing, photography, art, music, cake decorating and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial to your health. When we are being creative, our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant. Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high. Participating in creative activities may even help to alleviate depression.

The latest trend in stress relief is the adult colouring book

Adult colouring books are all the rage. They’re so popular now that there are even monthly colouring clubs. They’re inexpensive, fun, remind us of childhood, require no particular skill and they provide instant relaxation. They’ve become so mainstream that they can be purchased everywhere from Amazon to dollar stores.

Research shows that creative practices improve depression, anxiety and coping skills while enhancing quality of life and significantly reducing stress – all vital for mental health and wellness. And the beauty of creativity is that anyone can practice it – why not start today?

Are we doing enough to encourage our students to exercise their creativity?


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LGBT Pride Month: How to Foster Inclusion in the Workplace

IMG_7553.jpegJune is LGBT Pride Month, and I feel this is a great opportunity to discuss why LGBT inclusion in the workplace is important for employee wellness and how employers can foster an environment of inclusion.

According to a recent study by Telus, about one-third of respondents don’t find their workplace safe and inclusive for lesbian and gay employees. In addition, the study found that:

  • 57% per cent of respondents said they’re not fully out at work
  • 22% are worried about a hostile work environment
  • 15% are concerned about losing out on career opportunities
  • 10% are worried about personal safety

Many LGBT individuals facing discrimination in the workplace suffer mental health issues

“LGBT-identified individuals experience higher levels of depression and anxiety, and have higher incidents of suicide,” says Colin Druhan of Pride at Work”. “And the discriminatory treatment they receive from others, including in the workplace, contributes to those statistics. People should feel safe at their job, not afraid of being shamed or harmed. But many LGBT employees choose not to reveal their sexual orientation in their workplace, thinking it will make co-workers uncomfortable, or alienate them. Some fear retaliation.”

What can employers do?

Although many companies have policies regarding inclusion, it is clearly not widespread enough. And while protecting employees from discrimination is both a legal and ethical responsibility for employers, there is often a disconnect between policy and practice. There are many things that you as an employer can do to foster an inclusive work culture that is welcoming to all:

  • Develop company-wide policies regarding inclusion
  • Institute anti-discrimination and harassment policies that address homophobia
  • Promote diversity at work
  • Educate all employees and support lesbian, gay and transgender employees through resource and networking groups
  • As a company, oppose laws that suppress gay rights
  • Take part in community, fundraising and volunteering events that support the LBGT community

Why is diversity important in the workplace?

Diversity promotes and encourages different perspectives and different talents. It can inspire employees to think beyond their own views, push their boundaries, and reduce stigma. I believe we need to create cultures of diversity and inclusion so that everyone feels free and safe to be who they are. Diversity will strengthen your company. It will enhance your recruiting and retention efforts. Employers who fail to create safe, respectful environments risk losing valued employees and clients to more inclusive companies. And according to Pride at Work, the LGBT community has an annual economic impact in Canada of over $100 billion. Doesn’t it make business sense then to promote diversity at work?

Does your company have an inclusion policy in place? How does your company promote diversity and inclusion? Do you actively recruit a diverse workforce?

 

 

 

 


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Get Outside! Ecotherapy Can Benefit Your Mental Health

With Earth Day coming up on April 22nd, let’s celebrate by making a commitment to reconnect with nature and reap the benefits.

Urbanization has caused our disconnection with nature

More than 50% of the world’s populations now live in urban settings and we’re contending with sensory overload on a daily basis. In order to keep up with our lifestyles and work demands, many of us are sleep-deprived, fighting traffic or overcrowded transit systems, and eating at our desks. We spend little to no time outdoors in green spaces. As a result, numerous studies have shown that urban dwellers are at a much higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people who live in more rural settings.

Some countries are actively using ecotherapy (also known as natural therapy or green therapy) to combat the effects of urbanization. These programs encourage interacting with nature and participating in outdoor activities, to help heal and nurture the mind and body. There are three therapeutic “healing forests” in South Korea (with 34 more planned by 2017). In Sweden, virtual nature spaces are prescribed for workers suffering from stress.

Fresh air is good for you

We all know about the benefits of physical exercise, but just being in nature can improve your mental outlook. You don’t have to bike or run; you can sit on a park bench, go for a stroll, or sit on a patio to reap the benefits. And you don’t have to make a major time commitment. You can benefit significantly from spending just 15 minutes a day in nature.

How spending time in nature can improve your mental health

There are many benefits to connecting with nature:

  • Mood elevation
  • Restored mental energy
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increased alertness
  • Better concentration
  • Improved short-term memory
  • Better sleep
  • Increase in Vitamin D

Small changes can make a big difference

As an employer, you can help your employees reconnect with nature. With pleasant weather upon us this spring, encourage your employees to take their lunch breaks outside or at least go for a walk around the block. If your office building has outdoor spaces, put out some picnic tables. Organize group outdoor activities in the summer months – a weekly softball or Frisbee game over the lunch hour or after work, potluck lunch at the local park with a badminton net and three-legged races, golf tournaments, or a harbour cruise. These activities will boost morale and improve mental health, which is beneficial for your employees’ overall health.

What are you doing to help your employees reconnect with nature?


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High-Functioning Depression: The Mental Illness that Hides in Plain Sight

April 7th is World Health Day, and this year’s theme is “Depression: Let’s Talk”. While we have focused quite a bit on the topic of depression in light of “Bell Let’s Talk Day” only being a few weeks ago, I thought I’d discuss an issue that doesn’t get as much attention as it should – high-functioning depression.

Take a minute to think about an employee you talk to every day. You may chat with them about their family, discuss your plans for the weekend, or even joke around with them. Now imagine that on the inside, that employee is suffering from low energy, negative thoughts, and is struggling to keep a smile on their face. This is the reality for people living with high-functioning depression.

Just like regular depression, high-functioning depression results in loss of energy and feelings of hopelessness. The difference is, people with high-functioning depression don’t show any of these symptoms physically. They can go to work in the morning and perform tasks perfectly well. In fact, they could even be one of the highest-performing employees on your team. One could say that the “overachievers should not be overlooked”.

When it comes to high-functioning depression, a person’s outward behaviour doesn’t match the reality of what they are feeling. They plow through to get things done in their personal and professional lives, but are “exhausted”. High-functioning depression has been likened to “running a race with a weighted vest”. Because that vest is “invisible”, the illness often goes unnoticed by friends, family, coworkers, and HR managers.

Although the nature of high-functioning depression makes it difficult to detect, it’s certainly not impossible. There are subtle signs that may help you tell when an employee is suffering. Recognizing the signs can be crucial to preventing the situation from developing, and ensuring support is in place. Let me share with you some of the signs that an employee may have high-functioning depression:

  • Constant self-criticism and/or feelings of low self-worth
  • Place too much pressure on themselves
  • Feel like they are wasting time on the job
  • Feel like they have little life purpose or are lost
  • Feel like they are a nuisance to their family and friends
  • May have substance abuse problems outside of work
  • Worry about the small stuff and are unable to let things go

The feelings associated with these signs are not necessarily manifested on the outside and these signs do not necessarily indicate the presence of high-functioning depression, but glimpses of these signs can be flags for you to offer support.

It’s important for a manager, HR or otherwise, to remember that a mental illness doesn’t have to be seen to be real. Ensuring that you’re checking in with your staff and starting an open dialogue can make all the difference when it comes to helping an employee with high-functioning depression. Employees are more likely to ask for help from their employer when you provide them with a supportive environment.

Do you pay attention to the employees that seem “okay” on the outside? Do you have the support mechanisms in place to encourage open communication?


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Women and Wellness in the Workplace

This past March 8th was National Women’s Day. It was a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women all around the world. Although it was only one short day, I think it’s great that we are taking the time to acknowledge all the wonderful things that women have accomplished.

One accomplishment that stands out to me is the growing number of women in the workplace. It’s fantastic that in 2014, women made up almost half of the labour force compared to just 37% in 1976.

While it augurs well that more and more companies are hiring female employees, it does bring with it a new set of mental health matters that an HR manager should consider. Although mental health affects everyone, women experience more stress, anxiety, and depression at work than men do. In fact, research has found that women are 1.4 times more likely to suffer from these mental illnesses than their male colleagues.

I’d like to share with you two main reasons why women in the workplace suffer mental health issues more than men, as well as some solutions you can use to help minimize them at your workplace.

Domestic Responsibilities

When women consider the choice to start a family, enter the workforce or return to work after having children, care for elderly parents, or pursue advancement within their career, they are considering work-life balance. Although working husbands and fathers have taken on more familial responsibilities over the years, women still tend to take on the majority of these responsibilities. Juggling career pressures with family obligations can increase risks of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So how can managers give women the support they need? Providing programs that offer greater work-life balance is the key. This balance means different things to different families, but could include encouraging flexible working hours, allowing telecommuting, and implementing child-care services. I know it may not always be possible to establish these family-friendly services, but an important thing you can do is to be more accommodating and ask the women in your organization what would be helpful to them. Making small changes to your mindset can go miles in positively impacting the wellbeing of the women in your workplace.

Inequality 

Even though we have seen quite a positive improvement in women joining the labour force, many women still experience inequality in their career. One study shows that women earn about 26% less than men do. On top of still receiving lower pay, women also face higher levels of job insecurity as well as lack of career advancement. Unsurprisingly, this causes high rates of anxiety, depression, and distress among female workers. A large part of wellness is equality, so a valuable step you can take is to ensure that your workplace enforces pay equity.

To encourage female leadership, many companies are rewarding behaviours such as nurturing and communication. When an organization develops feelings of pride, trustworthiness, and respect, as well as welcoming ideas and building good fellowship, it will encourage women to move past the glass ceiling and create a foundation that can reduce stress and mental health issues in the workplace.

Making sure your organization has the tools in place to foster understanding and equality can make all the difference to female employees.  Checking in with them to see what more your company can do to retain happy, healthy staff is vital to their overall well-being.

Are you giving the women in your workplace the support they need?


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Eating Disorders: What You Need To Know

As someobelly-2354_960_720ne who has worked in the mental health field for 30 years, I’m no stranger to working with clients who have suffered from eating disorders. This past week was Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time dedicated to reducing the stigma associated with eating disorders and creating awareness about the mental health issue that affects approximately 1 million Canadians every year.

So what exactly is an eating disorder? In simple terms, an eating disorder is a mental health issue that leaves individuals completely pre-occupied with their weight. However, according to The Canadian Mental Health Association, eating disorders are not just about food. They are often a way to cope with difficult problems or regain a sense of control. They are complicated disorders that affect a person’s sense of identity, worth and self-esteem.

Unsurprisingly, eating disorders are most common in females. A recent report found that 3% of Canadian women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. This can happen for a number of reasons. Female body image is constantly critiqued in popular culture, and as a result, women are more likely to develop disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia in an effort to control their weight.

While eating disorders are more common in females, body image issues impact males as well. Men are exposed to a similar level of body critique, mainly that they need to be muscular and strong. This kind of societal pressure can result in men developing eating disorders or taking hormones like steroids to increase their muscle mass. Steroid use, like an eating disorder, also has a long-term negative impact on a person’s health.

Effects of eating disorders may not always be apparent. For example, anorexia sufferers generally have a very low body mass index (BMI), but people suffering from bulimia often maintain a relatively stable body weight. Here are some tips on how you can identify if a friend or employee is suffering from an eating-related mental health issue.

  • Food obsession
    It’s important to note when someone begins to obsess about food, for example, constantly counting calories or eliminating large groups of “bad” foods from their diet, especially if this was never a topic of conversation before.
  • Excessive exercise
    Physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, but when you begin to notice someone is taking his or her gym routine to the next level it can be cause for concern. People with eating disorders often attempt to “work-off” the bad calories they have consumed after a binge, to the point where they are putting their bodies through physical discomfort.
  • Body image issues.
    While losing weight can be a side effect of an eating disorder, it can also increase the level of anxiety a person may have towards their body. Even though they may be losing weight, someone suffering from an eating disorder might wear baggy clothes to cover up their body. Take notice if someone in your life begins expressing dissatisfaction with his or her body more frequently.
  • Depression.
    Symptoms of eating disorders often mimic the symptoms of depression due to the lack of energy, low morale and lack of sufficient sleep the disease causes. People suffering from eating disorders tend to isolate themselves from groups, especially if food is involved. If you notice someone exhibiting symptoms of depression while showing signs of negative body image or food obsession, it could be cause for concern.

The impact of any eating disorder can be devastating. From restricting the body of food to choosing to binge eat and then purge, eating disorders can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental health. Short-term effects include poor digestion, kidney issues, anxiety and depression while long-term issues include infertility in women or death as a result of malnutrition.

Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, employer or friend, it’s important to know how to spot the signs of an eating disorder so if someone you know is impacted, you can help. Confronting someone about an eating-related mental health issue is difficult, but it’s important to get your loved one the help they need before they cause irreparable damage.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to get help. Contact your EAP or SAP provider for assistance, or speak to a medical professional.

For more advice on this issue, visit The National Eating Disorder Information Centre or CAMH.