Sean Burke is CheckingIn on Mental Health and EDI

Jason McRobbie

Sean Burke, founder and CEO of Checkingin, has both an app and appetite for breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental health. Since 2019, he has worked with small to large companies including BDC, MNP, Earls, and Squamish Nation to create long-term holistic strategies and small steps to improve mental health and EDI in the workplace. We sit down to talk about the waning taboos of Western business thinking and how EDI plays an integral role in evolving workplace cultures that support mental health and the bottom line alike.

Key Takeaways:

  • Despite affecting everyone and being exacerbated by the pandemic, workplace stigmas around mental health remain;
  • With investment money for mental health usually limited by prioritization, what is required is a shift of mindset and a daily practice;
  • A focused commitment to EDI and the ensuing conversations and actions can facilitate that shift and build the foundations of mental wellbeing at work.

“Do you brush your teeth every day?”

Sean Burke, founder and CEO, of CheckingIn, is used to seeing a sea of hands pop up immediately when he asks that question at the start of his seminars.

However, even now, in a mostly post-pandemic world—wherein we have shared our screens and souls and grappled with historical and present-day social inequities more openly than ever before—Sean’s follow-up question still has most people looking at their feet.

“How many of you have a mental health practice you do every single day?”

“Typically, when I ask those questions in a group of people, 99% will throw up their hands for the first—fast and confident. Then, with the second question, 50% will keep their hands down, 25% will shuffled their hands a bit and the remaining quarter, sometimes less, will raise their hands because they are doing something for their mental health.”

Despite varied mandates for psychologically safe workplaces and one in five

Canadians having faced or contending with mental health concerns even prior to the pandemic, the stigma is still strong—as are the Western biases and outdated business mindsets to which many still cling, unconsciously or otherwise, according to Sean.

That said, we were taught to brush our teeth from childhood and it takes minutes a day. Mental health practices simply haven’t been factored into our upbringing, but that is changing by necessity and an amplified focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We really started to think around the question, ‘What is the equivalent of brushing your teeth from a mental health perspective?’ and that mental toothbrushing lies within building self-awareness in the moment,” said Sean. “It’s understanding how you feel in the moment and then being able to understand what you need to either process or work through that emotion. So the idea of a mental health check in everyday—one word, one number—that’s what starts our ability to know how we are showing up in the world. Then we can ask what we need to do to move forward. Do we need to stay with that feeling or can we be content and let it pass?“

On that basis CheckingIn was born, an app was launched and partnerships formed within multiple organizations and non-profit, minority entities including indigenous and LGBTQ+2S communities.

“Stigma has, continues, and always will exist in the workplace around mental health. The pandemic has relieved some of that and created opportunities for more open conversations, but it is still there, and it is the responsibility of managers and leaders to reduce that stigma to create psychologically safe workplaces,” said Sean. “When managers say mental health is not their responsibility, we remind them that it actually is from a legal perspective. As leaders, we have a duty to inquire if you see someone showing signs. Secondly, it’s our job to make sure employees reach optimum performance and if they are suffering from a mental health challenge, they can’t do that. It is not your responsibility to solve the problem, but it is to connect them with the supports and services available.”

Moreover, as Sean pointed out, there has long been a solid business case for investing in employee mental health—and one that is becoming increasingly apparent.

“Only now are we starting to see the mass, unintended consequences of not treating our employees with that regard—people are leaving, people are going on short term disability. As an employer, I think of rising premium costs, back-to-work policies, and the cascading impacts of continuing to treat the symptom and not the problem,” said Sean. “It’s about changing the old ways.”

The logic for shifting that thinking becomes even more acute in light of mental health claims not only ranking as the leading reason for people going on disability, but more than doubling than claims in the second and third categories.

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“The business case for EDI and mental health has always been there and it was definitely magnified during pandemic. The Deloitte study around investing in workplace mental health has been out for years and we still talk about it,” said Sean.” However, in terms of investing in people first, there is still a hesitancy. I think this is largely driven from a business perspective and mindset. If you are looking at investing in either marketing/sales or in your employees, there is a traditional default to invest in the first because those are growing to drive revenue—and then reinvest those revenues into the people.”

“I think it needs to be flipped so that leaders understand, ‘Hey, if we actually invest in our people, they are going to perform better to help increase our sales and revenue—and we can invest THAT back into sales/marketing.’ It’s about changing the old ways.”

It’s the approach to mental health that Sean thinks has changed. “There is less ‘Let’s tick the box’ from a financial, risk-mitigation perspective around supporting people’s mental health and a shift towards ‘What else can we do?’ How do we potentially show a different the story or narrative around investing in mental health?”

For Sean, the story is simple and catching if not yet viral: “‘If we do invest in people’s mental health there are actually positive returns that come from it. That’s where you’re starting to see some very progressive leaders shift the workplace culture narrative and find ways that align EDI and mental health to support the business objectives.”

That said, in the wake of social revelations stemming from indigenous school site graves to sexual impropriety to waves of hate crimes targeting minority groups that reconnection to workplace culture—and the diversity that underpins it—has become even more critical.

For Sean, the connection between EDI and mental health is both apparent and one that can build bridges to better workplace cultures and communities alike—once we develop the ears to hear and eyes to see.

“The greatest lens of understanding I have gained has emerged from the indigenous communities that we work with,” said Sean. “Particularly over the past few years—as more Canadians have become aware of residential schools, the impact of intergenerational trauma and how that has played out within indigenous communities—there has been a stronger need to support and provide different cultural understandings to non-indigenous individuals, as well as to provide more inclusive workplaces that can support the different cultural understandings and teachings.”

One of the keys to unlocking that understanding is again found in a shift of Western mindset.

“What we have seen, when it comes to workplaces and indigenous peoples, is that we can’t approach it with a Western lens of ‘this is what we can do for you’—at least not right away,” said Sean. “We need to flip the conversation and ask our employees, ‘What do you need and how can your specific cultural understanding be shaped and supported within our Western ways of supporting your mental health?’”

I think by asking that question and truly using those active listening skills and then finding ways to work within existing infrastructures and frameworks to support the whole individual—that’s where you are going to start to see movement and change happen from an indigenous perspective when it comes to mental health,” said Sean, who points out that this approach that for others seeking similar support and understanding.

Education and self-awareness, Sean explained, is fundamental to furthering mental wellness, but the greatest progress can be made when we develop true understanding of others.

What does education and awareness look like? Well, if you are not a member of that community, we want to help put you in their shoes. We can’t physically do that, but we can give you an experience where you might have an emotional connection to some of the challenges that a specific community is experiencing. Now you may have more empathy to be more supportive of whatever their needs might be,” said Sean. “So what we’re trying to do is not solely be there for the minority group, but equally as important, to educate the non-minority group so there is greater acceptance and support from a cultural perspective.”

With those business objectives having expanded to creating psychologically safe workplaces and learning cultures grounded in EDI and flexibility, Sean knows the challenges leaders and HR have faced both during the pandemic and now as they seek to create those spaces in a hybrid world.

“Initially the trend was lunch and learns, bringing in experts to talk about what EDI means and how it presents itself differently in the workplace. Then you saw fatigue setting in with Zoom seminars during the pandemic, so people shifted to wanting an app— a calmer headspace from a Western mental health perspective. Others factored in meditation and breath work,” said Sean. “ And I am not trying to criticize the HR leaders who put these things in place because they were tasked with an incredibly difficult responsibility—to shift everything away from the office and come up with these brand new policies without precedent, all while answering a million questions. That said, so much of it has been reactionary because we are just trying to keep up, so I think a lot of that made a tick the box for a mental health app an easy decision.”

And while Sean has a great app for just that, he knows the truest value stems from the greater organizational commitment.

“I think now we’re at the stage where we recognize that an app by itself won’t solve someone’s mental health problems. It can help. It can be a tool in the mental health toolbox,” said Sean. “The key to this is that if organizations genuinely care about their people it all comes down to the culture. That includes the policies and processes, how people are compensated, the way they set expectations and goals, the number of working hours that people can disconnect. It takes an organizational approach to make meaningful change when it comes to people’s mental health in the workplace. Some organizations are there. The vast majority are not because they don’t know how. And it’s difficult.”

And while Sean never fails to credit his coach, Judy, for putting him on the path to emotional intelligence and greater self-awareness, he has found exploring the perspectives of others—including those youngest—to be invaluable.

“My kid and I used to play this game, ‘Which One Are You?’ Whenever we were reading a book, she would pick out a character for this and that reason and I would do the same,” said Sean. “So we were watching TV and there were two announcers, so I asked, ‘Which One Are You? One was a black person and one was white, so I expected her response to be along those lines. Instead, she immediately said, ’I am the person with no hair,’” said Sean.

“The first thing I saw was colour, but she had a completely different perspective. She saw hair/no hair. That’s important because if you ask most ‘grown-ups’ that question, their response would be based on colour.  It’s the pure innocence of children that allows them not to see things in terms of black and white, or race at all. It was my kid who taught me this,” said Sean.

“To me—as one who has a ton of privilege as a white male settler—it really stood out. We need to work really hard to reveal our biases and change how we perceive the world through our patriarchal lens of how things have historically been done. That’s the work we all have to do.”