‘Leadership is about courage,’ says senior official who speaks out about battle with depression

By on 02/06/2016 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Sara Filbee, assistant deputy minister for the Atlantic region at Service Canada, which is part of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)

A senior civil servant whose team won an innovation award for its work in supporting workplace wellbeing has spoken of her struggle with depression and is urging other leaders to show courage. 

Sara Filbee, assistant deputy minister for the Atlantic region at Service Canada, which is part of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and provides Canadians with one-stop access to government services and benefits, led work in her department to create a mental health framework.

Creating an atmosphere “where it is ok, and not limiting, to discuss mental health” has been one of her team’s priorities and Filbee decided to share her personal battle with depression because “leadership is about courage and if I can’t put my money where my mouth is then I am not much of a leader!”

One in five Canadians experiences a mental health problem in any given year, according to official statistics. But, Filbee said: “We have not as a society been very good at dealing with it. There is still a stigma attached to mental health and my team’s work focused a lot on solving some of the problems caused by that, educating people and normalising mental health problems.”

Filbee said that while her illness is classed as minor and can be “easily managed if i stay on top of it” she still remembers “all too well the pain of being in a black hole when I was first diagnosed.”

Since she was diagnosed in her late 30s, she has been taking medication and “learned the power of cognitive behavioural therapy – an approach that allowed me to successfully regain control of my fears, anxieties and negative patterns.”

Depression, she said, is not logical: even though Filbee considers herself to be “incredibly blessed” surrounded by loving friends and family, enjoying her job and “living in her dream house”, she has had to “manage the fears and negative thoughts associated with depression.”

But she argued that her personal challenges have made her a better leader.

“For example, I regularly challenge myself and my team to be sensitive to the overall well-being of our colleagues and employees as a key step on our journey to create an even higher performing organisation.

“I hope that sharing my story will help us to collectively understand just how serious and how important our work to create a mentally healthy workplace is.”

Filbee and her team decided to become a best practice organisation for mental health after a survey published in 2013 showed that of the 3.7% of employees who had taken long-term sickness leave at ESDC, 44% did so due to mental health problems – a figure higher than the public service-wide average.

The department had also been involved in the development of a new mental health standard which was launched by the government in January 2013 to assess and improve mental health in the workplace.

And so deputy minister Ian Shugart “was concerned that the department truly addressed the issue in a substantive way leading to our work,” Filbee said.

In June 2014, the department created a steering committee to develop a Workplace Mental Health Integrated Framework.

As part of the work to create a framework, the committee had to “do a base-line assessment of what the issues were, what we were doing right and wrong, what others were doing in the field,” Filbee said.

Taking stock of the situation meant “engaging with all people at a lot of levels in the organisation and across the public service,” including employees, managers and union representatives, by way of collecting data, sending out surveys, conducting focus groups and inviting people to send in comments.

By December the Integrated Framework on Mental Health in the Workplace was approved by senior management and in January 2015, the a committee was put together charged with the framework’s implementation under Filbee’s leadership.

In May of the same year, ESDC officially launched the framework which set out the department’s vision as being a “workplace that promotes psychological health and safety and encourages employees and managers to address mental health concerns openly” and included a three-year action plan featuring dozens of points.

Many of the actions have already been delivered: “For example, we’re working with the Canada School of Public Service to help integrate issues around mental health into the executive leadership programmes,” Filbee said.

Filbee and her team also launched a website within the government intranet providing resources and tools to help with mental health problems and gather feedback on employees’ wellbeing.

“Our aim was to become a best practice organisation in the field of mental health, but I don’t know if you can ever or should ever say that you’ve reached that goal.

“What you need to do is keep trying and striving to get there. And that’s our goal,” she said.

Filbee picked up her award at the APEX Symposium yesterday, a two-day conference for Canadian senior civil servants which started on Tuesday.

She was joined by deputy assistant commissioner at the Canada Revenue Agency, Dan Couture, who won the leadership award; Jennifer Hollington, director-general (DG) at Natural Resources Canada who won the healthy workplace award; Norm Sheridan, executive director at the Canada Border Services Agency who won the career contribution award; and Ezio DiMillo, a DG at Public Services and Procurement Canada – the department responsible for the government’s internal servicing and administration, who received the partnership award.

The event was held at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa under the banner: ‘Leadership Action for Excellence, Innovation and Health.’

It included various workshops and speeches by senior officials such as Canada’s most high-ranking civil servant Michael Wernick and politicians such as Scott Brison, the minister responsible for the public service.


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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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