OTTAWA—Before I moved to Ottawa from Newfoundland, I thought of Parliament Hill as hallowed halls where laws were passed or a raucous Chamber where barbs were tossed and jabs were parried. It was only after I came to work in the nation’s capital—and had occasion to meet some of the many staffers who work on the Hill—did I pause to consider the storied venue for what it is first and foremost: a workplace.
In his interview with The Hill Times last week, political staffer Paul Wernick shone a stark, but necessary, light on the realities faced by the more than 3,000 staffers who work notoriously long hours for little pay and less vacation—both in the riding and in Ottawa. Often burning the candle at both ends, political staffers are a rare breed, willing to potentially risk their own health in the pursuit of making a difference.
Like any longstanding system, modernization is required—even if the pace is slow. In recent years, mental health champions like Wernick’s own father, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, have emerged as champions for a revitalized bureaucracy with a focus on improved psychological safety. In contrast, political staff members serve at the pleasure of their Parliamentarian with little in the way of recourse or conventional support. The pressure to perform is often overwhelming, the demands of the job exhausting and the employment precarious.
However, awareness about mental health is growing and political parties are recognizing the need to protect their most important resource. The caucus of the Conservative Party of Canada undertook mental health literacy training—a crash course in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)—and then sought full training for their staff. The Liberal caucus also partook in MHFA, with plans to extend that training to staff. These steps are seemingly small, especially when set against the reality of Wernick’s situation, yet they are leading in the right direction.
Perhaps even more telling is Wernick’s willingness to speak openly about something as personal as a suicide attempt. His bravery in so doing was matched by the compassion extended by his boss, Francis Drouin, Member of Parliament for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell. This kind of example may free others who are keeping their own mental health challenges under wraps.
While the Hill is a place with high expectations, it is also a community where staffers can help to look out for one another. From ensuring that Parliamentary Protective Services are trained in mental health resiliency, to encouraging the adoption of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, there are ways and means to improve the working conditions for one of Ottawa’s most under-recognized resources.
From policy advisers, to research and scheduling assistants, to the upper echelons of the Prime Minister’s Office, political staffers are rarely motivated by conventional rewards. Regardless of political stripe or affiliation, they share a common wish to shape policies that will make the country better. While they might not agree on how to do this, we can all agree that their health and wellness should not suffer because of their chosen profession.
From improved communication about employee assistance programs, to more readily available information about problematic substance use, to hearing from people with lived experience like Paul Wernick, there are ways to reshape a workplace culture—even one as entrenched as that of Parliament Hill.
As Canadians, we all stand to benefit.
Louise Bradley is president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
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