How Cindy Radu put her life back together after being diagnosed with depression
What we can learn about the high cost of feeling low
by Steve MacLeod
Photographs Bryce Meyer
Turning 40 is a major milestone in most people’s lives. When Cindy Radu passed it a decade ago, it certainly looked like she had everything under control. She had successfully transitioned her career from chartered accountant to tax lawyer and was working for a major law firm in Calgary. With just a month to go before her wedding, she decided to travel to London, England for four days of shopping and seeing shows with three of her closest girlfriends. It should have been the trip of a lifetime. It wasn’t. “I just remember being a complete bitch,” Radu says.
That’s because Radu’s personal life was not unfolding as planned. Two months before the vacation, she had a miscarriage. The experience devastated her, but she carried on with the typical workload of a lawyer and her wedding plans. She was run down and exhausted. There were several times when she closed her office door and sat, silently, with her head in her hands. “There was this fogginess in my head,” she says. “It was really hard to concentrate and it felt like I was moving in slow motion.”
The symptoms persisted after Radu got married and she decided to see a doctor in June 2002. She described feeling tired all the time and being unable to concentrate, even on seemingly simple tasks. Radu expected the doctor to tell her she had mononucleosis, a viral infection that, among other things, produces symptoms similar to the ones Radu was feeling. Instead, he shocked her with a different diagnosis: depression.
“You’re done,” she remembers him telling her.
“You’re not going back to work.”
Radu felt alone. She wasn’t aware of a history of depression in her family and she didn’t know anyone else who suffered from it. But hers is not an isolated case. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), one in five people experience a mental health issue every year and mental health problems are the leading cause of short- and long-term disability in the country. MHCC, a not-for-profit organization, estimates mental health problems cost Canada’s economy $51 billion a year, a figure that includes everything from lost time at work to health-care costs.
After five years of research, the commission released its six main priorities for a national mental health strategy in May. Around the same time, it also published a mental health guide for employers. The guide provides 24 actions MHCC says employers could implement, regardless of size or sector.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists depression as the fourth most significant cause of suffering and disability in the world, behind heart disease, cancer and traffic accidents. By 2020, WHO predicts that depression will be second on that list. Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist and author of a handful of books on the subject, says businesses can’t afford to ignore the ailment. During a breakfast presentation hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on July 4 titled “Depression is Bad for Business”,Yapko said the human factor and the economics can’t be separated. “Whether you decide to help people for the financial benefit or for the human interest, [it] doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’ll benefit on both sides.”
Ten years after being diagnosed with depression, Radu is now the director of The WaterStreet Group Inc.’s family office services in Calgary. She is also a mental health advocate who hopes to increase awareness, help eliminate the stigma attached to depression and allow people to feel comfortable about reaching out for support before needing to go on a disability leave from work. “If people know they can feel safe, they’ll talk,” Radu says. “If people are willing to talk, it takes a lot of pressure off.”
The problem is that many people aren’t willing to talk, while others haven’t learned how to listen. One of the biggest problems with treating depression is that it doesn’t present itself as clearly as, say, a broken arm or leg. Likewise, the limitations in the workplace associated with depression aren’t as obvious as those related to physical injuries. Dr. Lori Buchart, an associate professor at Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business, says there’s a lot of cynicism around stress-related illnesses. “People don’t want to talk about mental health,” she says. “There’s a fear that they could lose their jobs and it’s a vulnerability issue.” The Calgary Counselling Centre, a charitable organization that provides affordable, professional counselling services to Calgarians, estimates that every employee with depression who is untreated will cost a company $4,199 per year in productivity.
Buchart is currently studying return-to-work strategies used by businesses in Alberta, focusing on programs for people returning from long-term leave following cancer treatment. It’s a situation Buchart faced many years ago. She struggled quietly with depression for decades by simply smiling and pretending everything was fine. Eight years ago, when she was working part-time as a human resources practitioner for two different organizations and studying for a doctorate in business administration, Buchart finally hit a wall. One employer provided support and stayed in touch from the moment she took her leave of absence until she was ready to return. The other employer, she says, lived up to their legal obligations, but not much more.
As part of her research, Buchart studied six different organizations in Calgary and conducted 50 interviews. From the results, she hopes to develop strategies for employees and employers to work together, but so far, the results are not encouraging. Buchart says the problem is similar to what she experienced earlier in her career: people would rather push the issue aside than talk about it. Stephanie Harvey, a human resources specialist with Shaw Communications Inc., says silence won’t reverse the trend of increasing employee absenteeism due to mental health issues. “How can we support an employee in their recovery if we don’t know what we’re dealing with?” she says. “If we know what it is, we can work with them and support them.”
According to the Calgary Counselling Centre, an average of 30 work days is lost per person every year as a result of depression-related issues. Whether an employee is on long-term disability due to depression, support when returning to work is an important aspect in reducing the amount of time away and ensuring the employee is comfortable. Shaw has a dedicated claims management team that starts working with an employee once he or she is diagnosed. Harvey says the job is more than just pushing paper and the seven-person team is populated with physical therapists and professionals with kinesiology and psychology degrees.
“Bringing these people in and changing how we manage claims was done by educating the leaders,” Harvey says. It was explained to the leaders how this method would benefit the employee, the team and the company. During an employee’s time away from work, the company stays in constant contact with him or her and provides whatever support is needed, depending on the situation. When the employee is ready to return to work, Harvey says both sides determine a new work agreement. “It’s more for the employees, so they understand what they’re doing and what they’re not doing because it may impact their recovery,” Harvey says.
Coming up with an effective strategy is more complicated than creating a list of steps and following them. “It takes good, sound judgement and common sense. We have guidelines, but you have to be flexible and bend within that,” she says. “We pretty much have the ability to accommodate anything, short of being in a coma.”
About five years ago, SAIT Polytechnic had few support systems in place. The technical institute has a full-time staff that fluctuates between 2,300 and 2,500 people, and at the time more than half of the post-secondary school’s long-term disability claims were related to cancer and mental health issues. When Patrick Carrière became SAIT’s manager of health, safety and wellness, he made it one of his goals to reduce disability claims related to depression.
The first thing Carrière did was get people talking. He says most supervisors are afraid to talk about mental health issues because they’re not prepared, so they avoid the issue. “The most important thing that happens between an employer and an employee are the words you say or don’t say,” Carrière says.
To understand what was happening at SAIT, he hired a third-party auditor to track the organization’s long-term disability claims. He says he did it not to manage claims better (and perhaps save money in the process) but instead to figure out how the school could help its employees. “What’s more important are the leading indicators to get at the root aspect,” he says.
SAIT brought a return-to-work co-ordinator on staff and had 10 employees trained as mental health first aid instructors. Such training is conducted by the MHCC and a course for trainers costs $3,000. “Over the next five years, every staff member here will have a chance to spend two days with our instructors,” Carrière says. In total, Carrière says he’s spent about $2 million putting plans in place to reduce the number and duration of long-term disability claims. “Is it absolutely perfect? No,” he says. “Am I dedicated to improving it? Yes.”
For Radu, heading up the Calgary office for Toronto-based WaterStreet Group is a departure from her previous careers as a lawyer and accountant. “I knew I needed significant changes,” she says. “I wanted something that was a bit more nine to five. I needed lots of structure and support.”
It didn’t take long after Radu’s diagnosis for her to create the proper structure and find the necessary support in her personal life. Her marriage didn’t last, but she gave birth to a girl during her initial disability leave in 2002 and ended up waiting two years before returning to work. “If you don’t come back 100 per cent better with proper support systems in place, you’re playing with fire,” Radu says.
Radu speaks openly about her depression, but she doesn’t want to be coddled, especially at work. Instead, she just wants people to understand, and she figures that if every workplace had someone who was willing to talk about their experiences and act as a resource for anyone with mental health issues it could be a big step towards creating more productive businesses. “Every single one of my staff knows,” she says.
“I don’t walk around with a banner or anything, but I want people to talk about this.”