Transcript – Episode 25: Chat with Heather DiPenta and Louise Blais

John Hannaford: It’s my enormous pleasure to be the host today of an important discussion with respect to mental health. I’m John Hannaford. I’m the new deputy minister of international trade, and I’m the host today for an important discussion on mental health.

[We’re] very fortunate today to have two colleagues who will be engaging in this conversation. Heather DiPenta, who is our director of values, ethics and workplace wellbeing here at the department, and my old colleague Louise Blais, who was a friend from my first posting, I think it was maybe her first posting too, in Washington some 20 years ago. Louise is now one of our ambassadors and is deputy permanent representative at our mission in New York to the United Nations. So welcome to both of you to my office. And it’s terrific that this will be my first of these podcasts. So I want to thank my colleague and friend, David Morrison, who started this process some time ago. And I think it is, it's an opportunity for us to explore issues of importance to us as a community and as a department in real depth. And, it’s entirely suitable that we would start with issues of mental health.

Obviously, mental health issues are absolutely essential for us as a community and as a department.  And for me, both an individual and a manager, it’s something that has been very important. I myself have struggled with issues relating to anxiety, and I know that this is something that is relevant for a lot of people. And I think we’re very fortunate to have today Heather, who can speak to us a bit more about some of the services and the...the supports that are available to individuals as are dealing with issues pertaining to their mental health, but also Louise who is here to discuss in a bit more detail some of the experiences she has had. So we’ll start with Heather. Heather, I just wanted you to talk to us a little bit about really the subject that we’re discussing today. What do we mean by mental health?

Heather DiPenta: Well, thank you very much first of all for having this topic and you know I'm trying to control my own anxiety in being part of this podcast. Well, mental health and mental illness are on a spectrum, in fact, so we can have people who are experiencing mental illness, but are still perfectly functional within the workplace. And mental health is one of these aspects that needs to be supported like our physical health. We talk about having getting exercise and eating well and looking after ourselves, but we rarely talk about what that means from a mental health perspective and how does one actually look after ourselves. And you're absolutely right. People can have moments where they might not be doing as well as they are usually. You see that when you're exercising and every now and then you might get a sprained muscle, as an example and then you get some physio and you get some support and then you're back at your exercise again, but for some reason mental health is one of these topics that has a lot of stigma related to it and it's not something we talk about as readily. So, one of the programs that is under our particular division is the Employee Assistance Program where we have counselors that provide support to employees, including locally-engaged staff around the world and here in Ottawa. And last year we had about 2,000 individual sessions with employees. So, it's not a unique thing. It's not just a couple of people having the odd challenge. There's a lot of people reaching out and we're glad that people are reaching out. This is part of having a healthy organization. Our conflict management services, same thing. We provide a lot of different support to employees to help, you know, with some challenges that they might be going through. And as an organization to continue to have conversations just like this one to encourage people to talk about it and it's okay, it's okay to talk about. It's not a subject that should be kept, you know, behind closed doors or it would be awkward to discuss. So I was thrilled to be part of this, especially to hear Louise's story as well because I think employees generally and people generally need to understand it's okay, it's something that we can talk about.

John Hannaford Yes, you are absolutely right. Perhaps we can talk a bit about the topics in general that are difficult for members of our department. What are the most significant challenges?

Heather DiPenta : Our employees bring various difficulties. Most of the time, around 50% of the time, these involve personal matters, such as challenges in their lives, with their families. Having children, perhaps children in university, or various aspects of their lives, or they are supporting children as well as their elderly parents, and are in the midst of all that. So, personal matters. And 50% of the time, it’s aspects of their work life. It may be challenges with their supervisor, or maybe it’s difficulties with a colleague. Rarely does a possible problem which may occur in the workplace not affect an individual’s personal life, or vice versa. We’re all like a person who is always trying to balance life and work. Most of the time, when it’s about the work environment, it’s the workload we hear about the most. I have never seen employees more dedicated to their work than those here at Global Affairs. They work hard, and we have such different mandates as well, so, later in relation to that, it’s the workload.

John Hannaford: And what in your experience, what should we as managers or as colleagues or as people who are being supervised, how should we deal with these situations when we feel that there is a problem of mental health in our workplace? Whether it's, you know, an individual or it's a group who are experiencing these sorts of challenges. What can we do?

Heather DiPenta: That is a great question. I think, you know, a manager can have a moment of panic I think when an employee comes forward and says, "Look I'm really struggling with something and I don't know how to deal with it." There's that immediate freeze of: ‘I don't know what to say and what's the right thing to say’. Be supportive, be helpful, be understanding, be caring and I think that applies whether it's a manager who is listening to a situation or for the organization. Be caring and understanding that this is a normal thing for someone to be going through and I think those constant conversations about this topic, just like this one, will help address the stigma related to it. So, more of us can have those conversations more easily.

John Hannaford: Right. Right. Well you know one of the reasons why we wanted to have the conversation today was to kind of personalize this a little bit and to have the opportunity to talk through sort of an individual's experience with respect to challenges in this regard. You know, Louise we're old friends, we've worked together for a long time. I am delighted that you''ve been as forthcoming as you have been on this issue, because it's so important as a leader in this department that you have been prepared to talk about some of the challenges that you faced and how you've dealt with some of those challenges. Maybe we can start with a bit of your background and your family situation, things like that.

Louise Blais : Thank you very much, John. I’m very pleased to be here and to talk about this very important issue. For me, it was something that wasn’t part of my life, mental health. I was always very happy, very positive, and when it hit me, I was so surprised and felt so helpless. I lived, I grew up in a family with two brothers, with parents who were very organized, very dedicated, very results‑oriented. I have two older brothers who have done very well in life; the expectations were high for me as well, and it worked for me, I was quite happy with it, I realized that I was doing very well at work, I was meeting expectations. I was happy. I built a family, I got married, then had a family. Everything was going well, and things were happening exactly the way I wanted them to in terms of my career. So, I followed a path as a young girl in Quebec City who ended up making her way across the world. It’s quite exceptional, and I was very proud of the person I had become. It’s difficult, we need to talk about it. We shouldn't be shy about saying that I was very proud to work for the department. Proud to be a diplomat; but I was a diplomat 24/7. You know it never really leaves you when you're… especially, when you're posted abroad; As you know, you're a diplomat when you're shopping for your groceries, or because when you're encountering people they ask you what you do, you represent your country all the time. So you have to be on, you have to excel and....and for a long long time for me I excelled on that adrenaline. I mean if we had a crisis to manage whether when I was posted in Japan or in Paris later or in Washington, where you and I were together, I would actually thrive on it. You know I liked that action and...and when times were quiet I was kind of lost a little bit, but what I didn't realize is over time I'd come live on that adrenaline and that...and that self-worth that I developed came from my work and came from being important. You know if the ambassador called me to solve a problem wow, you know it was it felt good, it felt, so I kind of lost some perspective I think, which I think we can go into what led to the burnout and the complete breakdown that I had I think came from that, the fact that I was brought up to perform project meet expectations, if not exceed them and live a life of purpose. But that can be dangerous sometimes if you don't know how to distance yourself from what it is that we do. I mean I believe now that diplomacy is what I do, it's not who I am. There is a difference and it's a subtle difference, but I've learned the hard way. But, I believe that that journey that I went on, we can talk about it, what it looked like, because I think it's important to talk about what, you know the symptoms, how that destabilization happens. But what I learned through it is that and not to mistake intensity from effectiveness. And sometimes I brought too much intensity to what I did and it came at a cost. The other lesson that I learned is for a long, long time all my mentors were men and there were people that I looked up …looked up to and people that guided my career. And when I became a manager myself I managed like them because it had been something that I've found to be effective and something I looked up to, but really deep down it wasn't me, wasn't a true me. I had to and that journey as a manager where I realized that what had made me effective and become a manager and advance in a department is not what was needed of me anymore as a leader or as a supervisor.

John Hannaford: Well there's....there's a lot there. Thank you. You know I guess what you've described is resonant I think for a lot of us. I think this is a department where people tend to come because they feel passionately about the work that they're doing. It's a vocation as much as it's a career. And I think you've highlighted some of the challenges that could come with that, if you don't kind of put that in some perspective or have some degree of limit around...around your professional life as opposed to your personal life. But again you've alluded to it. Maybe could you tell us a little bit more about what precipitated the...the burnout that you experienced.

Louise Blais: Well I was in Paris at the time and I was director of the well actually was after that time where I was director of Centre Culturel Canadien à Paris and it was a difficult working environment. It first started with difficult working relations with staff who had...It was at the time where we were doing pulling back the public diplomacy budgets and the staff there were taking that very personally and they were going through their own turmoil. But they were, you know, I became the personification of that to them, since I was the manager putting this in place, so that was difficult. But it was also a time where we were going through DRAP more generally and letting go people and...and having difficult conversations and... but I don't want to really say that it was only that, I think it was a lifetime built up of having really used up the battery, energy as well. But in that circumstance leading up to the cuts I was acting like a manager, a no nonsense manager and really I was...I was a bit tough. I mean I think people who know me from those days to now say that I've completely changed my management style. So I felt that I needed to be tough and decisive and that was a way to be. But that really wasn't who I was, although I didn't know that at the time. So for about a year I started developing all sorts of physical symptoms that were very worrisome and worried the doctors and, so at the beginning whether it was paralysis in my face, whether it was heart palpitations, I was having all sorts of other symptoms night sweats, you name it. I think...I think I must have Googled every single symptoms in the book and every time we investigated with my doctors a symptom and it turned out to be nothing the...the pain or the...the turmoil in me moved to something else. And so then it was another symptom that would that would appear and then we'd go down that road and that led to a lot of anxiety related to you know, did I have cancer? Was I...and so I....I spun out of control there where it came to a point where I was at the office, it was around the time where the Prime Minister came four times in a short period of time that was under the Sarkozy presidency where it was. And it was during the Arab Spring and they were hosting Syrian coalition groups in Libya and was you know, this was the stuff that I had lived to be part of.  And all of a sudden it was here and all I could do is focus on calling the doctor because I was feeling unwell, searching for what was happening to me. And I remember one day it was a press conference, Prime Minister after a meeting gave a press conference I was standing in the back and I...I became so dizzy I couldn't be in the crowd. I became claustrophobic and you know these are things that never had happened to me before. So to cut it short, finally at the end of all of this my doctor said "there's nothing wrong physically with you." And that was not the answer that I wanted to hear, because if something is wrong with you physically you know, what do we do? How do we treat it? And when something is wrong with your psyche there's no roadmap, there's no, you know and the doctor can offer you a prescription and maybe to go see a psychologist, but your you know your and you don't know when you're gonna get better, if you're gonna get better. I ended up having to stop work altogether and I will never forget what Kim Butler told me at the time, he was the number two at the embassy in Paris and he had the full support of Marc Lortie who was also exemplary as Ambassador. Kim told me, he said, Louise he said, "you know what", he says, "don't feel guilty, don't feel bad, there's a ledger and I'm looking at it and the Department owes you a lot. You can take the time to get better." And that...I cannot tell you how important those words were to me, because I felt so responsible because when you were posted abroad, you know, there's a lot that comes with it. We...we have responsibility where we're being housed, I had children in school. What if I lost it completely as well. I mean you know my whole livelihood was going to be uprooted, but those words meant that at least I had...I had a month or two to just try to heal. And that was the kind of space, so when you're asking Heather what can a manager do that kind of validation I think goes a very long way because anyone admitting to and I've had a lot of people, as a manager I've had a lot of people ask you know getting leave, medical leave and very few of them will admit it's mental leave. They'll make, they'll go out of the way to get the doctor to make a very nondescript line. But, in my case I decided to come out and just say, "It's I'm unwell mentally" and it was accepted. So, then after that I went and I put all the passion and all my drive into getting better and it took three months and I tried everything. And from acupuncture to meditation to Qigong to medication, I mean I tried everything.... And going to nature, doing consulting with New Age gurus. I was trying to get better.

John Hannaford: And where did you find support to kind of identify the things that were available to you, the various things that you tried?

Louise Blais: Well friends, the internet, I I did not use the departmental services very much at the time. I have since and they're extremely good. But I...I...I really focused on getting better, but I cannot paint a pretty picture. I mean I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. I was so caught up in things, so anxious, so I wasn't functioning, really I wasn't eating. I lost a lot of weight. But I...I did I did and I don't know still to this day wasn't any one thing that brought me not just healing, but I would say a renaissance, a renewal of who I am. I'm stronger today than I was 10 years ago prior to this happening to me. I firmly believe that. Well one of the things that did guide me, later on, at the time I fought it, I told him that he was crazy, but one of these people I consulted said, "you're not being authentic at work. You're not really revealing the real you."

John Hannaford: Right.

Louise Blais: "And it's it's killing you." And literally and...when I got back to the was funny it was and he said to me something shocking, he said, "you have to love your employees." And I am going, what? Love? Employees? Emotions is for the home. I don't have emotions at the office. I mean that was my reaction. They're going to think I'm crazy. And he said no, he says: "provide them with unconditional love in how you manage them and you'll see you'll be happier." And I do..I do. It sounds corny to say, but it makes me happier too. And they don't know that. I mean they wouldn't...I mean you'd have to ask them. But I'm not doting. I'm not doting on them, but in my heart when I'm interacting with them I come from a place of love. It's hard to say, but you know I...I admit it because it works. And it doesn't mean I'm not serious. It doesn't mean I'm not, you know, advancing what we're doing but, but I deeply care about the people around me at the office, whereas I didn't before. There was a wall.

John Hannaford: That's fascinating. I must say I've thought along those lines that... You know these are intense experiences we live professionally and we go through them together because the nature of the work that we do whether it's at a mission or in a division or whatever is in a community. It's very rare we do something entirely by ourselves. And that kind of, there's an attachment that comes with that, that is an emotional attachment, as well as being a professional attachment. And those are real things and they matter a lot. They, because ultimately, you know, we're supporting each other as we're doing this work. And that's interesting I've never heard it put quite the way that you were advised, but I think there's...there's a real wisdom there. It's fascinating. So the cumulative effect of the work that you did, in the sense of, you know, investigating all of these avenues. If somebody were at the beginning of the process that you were at when the doctor gave you the diagnosis, such as, it was that...that you were given, what would you say to that person? What would you say to yourself now, based on the experience that you've had?

Louise Blais: The very first thing I would say is, "it's gonna get better", is to provide hope. that's the very first thing to say. I think, I had a friend that told me that because she had gone through something similar and that was key because when you're in that hole at that time, that is all that you see. And it's really hard, while you want to get better and that's the number one, the number one preoccupation. But the stress you put on yourself to try to get better sometimes is self-defeating. But if you know that it may take time, but you will get on the other side. I think that sense of hope is so very very important. So that's number one! Then the other one that I would say is: ‘Don't rush it’. As uncomfortable as it is. And it's uncomfortable to feel the way I felt. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to...I wanted to do anything I could to numb that feeling, it's a terrible feeling. And...but you have to be with it and accept it, accept that it's happening and for the longest time what was preventing my recovery and my learning from the experience was the fact that I didn't accept that it was happening. And I felt sorry for myself. I felt sorry for, why it is this happening to me. And I look for solutions in all the wrong places. When the solution is really often within ourselves. If we're willing to go there and let it come out in its own good time. And it’s layers by layers, day by day. I started to feel better, but it took a long long time. I mean three months is a long time when you're not feeling and when you're abroad and you're at home and you're having to call the office and say, "not this month. I can't go back. I'm not ready." And you can feel defeated very quickly. So the important thing is there is no...there's not any one recipe. My recipe is not necessarily somebody else's recipe to get better. But there is there...because it's an individual process. And I'm convinced that it needed to happen. I was meant to have this breakdown. And it has opened up a whole new life for me now that I was not living, I was half living I think. So if you open yourself to be able to say, even when you're experiencing it, this is happening for a reason. And maybe it isn't, but at the very least you can learn from it.

John Hannaford: Right.

Louise Blais: And the fact that now I'm a more sympathetic and I have more empathy in my relationship in the office means that I am at the very least not causing damage to people around me. And at best maybe helping them. And I'm pretty...I've got...I've had a few cases I think, perhaps I've had the opportunity and the great privilege to actually help some people. But I think a lot of us managers without even knowing. I did this before my break breakdown. I think I caused stress. I think I probably did do harm in some people around me. I wish I could apologize to them and a few of them I have called and told them I'm sorry. I see now that I didn't understand what you were going through and people that I now recognize in retrospect that probably were going through a struggle and I didn't have the patience for it. So, I think now of all the at least at the very least I don't harm people anymore. And I think that's, that's why I think I needed to go through this. And yeah.

John Hannaford: Well I would say, I mean we were just saying before we started recording, that you and I've heard you say this a couple times now, that when you've done public presentations, that you know when you're talking about the work of the UN and sort of the substantive issues, but very often what people want to talk about is actually the mental health aspect of your career and you know your experience there. And I mean it suggests to me among other things just that there's a huge pent up demand to have these conversations. It's one of the reasons why having the conversation today is important it's just a further opportunity to kind of draw out some of these issues that can be extraordinarily difficult for people. I guess the thing.... So you given some picture of your kind of management style now as a result of the experiences you went through, but just as an individual do you manage your own mental health now? Because you're obviously in a very different place than you were when you went through these experiences, but how do you maintain yourself?

Louise Blais: So, you know, hopefully this won't be a too shocking, but I did go from measuring people's commitment to the office sometimes. How quickly they would respond to an email on the weekend. Right. And I would get impatient. You know something's going on and he's not replying. To now basically thinking twice, three times, four times before I send an email on the weekend. Because I know that even if I say on the title, don't need to respond now I know that the person receiving it, one of my employees will feel responsible write back. So it's just an example of, I put some boundaries between work and my private life that didn't exist before. And you can count on me in any event if there's an emergency, but I do not use work to make me feel important. And times outside of work where I really believe I used to do that. I felt pretty important if I was you know I needed to, oh I'm too busy interrupting a dinner with something that was it sounds foolish now to say, but I did. And now I've changed all that and I keep a healthy distance between the work and me and I don't get emotionally, you know it's funny the differences I get emotionally drawn into the relationship in the office and caring for my staff, but I don't get emotionally drawn into the issues. And at the UN right now, as you know we're running for a seat for the Security Council. I mean that's pretty much the Olympics of diplomacy. You know it's out there and if you want stress you know it's by the spoonful every day. Because the stakes are so high and the team is so driven and...and I...I'm able to navigate through that stress extremely well because I keep a distance to, you know to, and I don't focus on things I don't control. Don't dwell on that and I just focus on what I can change and can actually do. Outside and that of course I do with a lot of people do, I stay healthy and yoga and meditation is something now that's part of my life. And...and... I try to take holidays, but that one I'm just not. This is difficult these days, but I try to. I recently went on a sailing trip and I told the staff I said look I, I did a bit of a fib. I didn't know if I was going to be connected. We're on the water I didn't know, so I said we'll just assume I can't be....I can't be reached. And they were good. They did not try to call me and I...there was a moment there I'm thinking the world doesn't need me maybe and then I just smiled and then adjusted the sail and kept going because I thought that's the point isn't it. And you know when you leave behind your staff and you say look I trust you you're in charge.

John Hannaford: Well I think that's exactly right.

Louise Blais: That's the message they want to know.

John Hannaford: Yeah, that's exactly right.

Louise Blais: They, you know, you need to empower them and if you...if you just say, "no, you know you always need to check with me for everything." That's not my style of managing anymore. And now when things are not done the way I would have done them unless they really messed up, I go that's the way that they did it and it's it's okay. I don't....I don't try to perfect things the way that I used to and make them the way that I see them. And I've learned to work with people in the process. And I'm better today at leveraging complementarity in the team than before. I made the mistake that we, many of us do where I wanted everyone to work like me before and then and now I realize the foolishness of that. But...but so that's the difference now.

John Hannaford: And maybe it's a species of the same question that I asked Heather. But as an organization what can we be doing in order to improve our support for people. And, you know, encourage the greatest degree of mental health possible.

Louise Blais: Well, I think, that's a big question. There's, there's a few very concrete things that we...I'm not going to dwell on, but I think the...the bigger picture I think is to as an organization to recognize first and foremost that we are...that the culture of the organization at the moment is conducive if not causing acerbating mental health. So, because of the well we're it's that we are devoted to our work, it's a competitive environment, our promotional processes in itself in themselves generate a lot of stress and anxiety and wasted you know negative feelings, unfortunately. The fact that we’re posted all over the world way way away from families some in very difficult circumstances, I think is obviously makes the department unique. So I think there is...I don't...I don't think we can ever do enough to try to change that and alleviate. I don't think we're ever going to solve it all. I think we have to accept that. But, I think we have to look at every step of the way diffusing some of those stress points. And I just said the promotional process it's a perennial problem I was in HR for a while and I can tell you, if you want to know when the stress level goes in the organization run a process.

John Hannaford: …je suis d’accord…

Louise Blais: So how do we, how do we solve that? I don't know. I don't have the answer, but I think we should really look at it continue...I know Francis Trudel and his team are doing great work looking at that and, but I think it's's an area where it moves us I think to to find a way to improve.

John Hannaford: Well maybe more just the way you've put that I think is pretty profoundly important that we need to be thinking about the mental health aspects of things that, you know, we haven't necessarily always. It's a lens through which we could view some of the processes that we create and that's...that's I think critically important, even as you say we can't solve all problems. We should be mindful of...of the problems we can solve.

Louise Blais: And I think...I think we need to have more honest conversation with employees and...and...and not just about mental health, but about their career trajectory. I think we....I think, so there's, I think it''s...I think it''s complex. Is the way that I would respond to that, but I think we've come a long way. But, I think we have, we have ways to go.

John Hannaford: Well look, thank you very much. That's... I think this has been a rather insightful conversation, and obviously one that was extremely important. And, you know, I think the willingness of people to speak about these situations is just so critical to us being able to kind of improve in these areas and so I thank you very much for your leadership in this regard. It really matters. It matters to us I think as an institution, but I think it matters for the...for the government generally that people be prepared to talk about their situations. And it obviously, it is absolutely critical for us as an institution that we maximize the skills and the talents of the people who work here. And one of the ways to do that is to encourage their mental health. So, its been a real pleasure chatting. Thank you very much and thank you to you too Heather. This has...this has been terrific and I don't know whether this is truly in the tradition of David Morrison who of course is the godfather of this podcast, but I found this a very helpful conversation. So thank you to both of you.

Heather DiPenta and Louise Blais: Thank you, Deputy Minister. Thank you, John.

John Hannaford: It’s been a pleasure.

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