Mental Health in the Yukon

Yukon is known for its beautiful wildlife and breathtaking views of the northern lights. But what many people aren’t aware of is the territory’s growing mental health concern.

May 15, 2022
Mental Health in the Yukon

Nathalie Dugas, Director of Human Relations for the Government of Yukon (HPW Department), uses a people-centric management approach to empower her employees to feel their best at the workplace.

Yukon is known for its beautiful wildlife and breathtaking views of the northern lights. But what many people aren’t aware of is the territory’s growing mental health concern.

The territory can be isolating to live in, with a population density of 0.1 persons per square kilometre -- far lower than Canada’s average of 3.7. Yukon suffers from the third highest rate of self-injury hospitalizations in Canada

Dugas explained that Yukon’s long winters can also make life difficult for many.

“We do have a long, cold winter … for a lot of people the winter times can be very isolating and difficult,” said Dugas. “You spend a lot of time indoors with no exposure to the sunlight.”

As Director of Human Relations, Dugas makes it a priority to care about her employees well-being with employee socials, friendly conversations and employer training.

Last Christmas, she organized a drawing contest for her employees’ children with notes from Santa explaining their parents’ jobs. The year before, Dugas organized a volleyball tournament to bring employees from different parts of the government together.

The work that Dugas does to make employees feel safe has a large impact on the greater society. In Yukon, 45 per cent of all workers are employed by the government.

Dugas believes that it is important for employees to love their job and feel valued.

“I heard a statistic which said that 85 per cent of people are not excited to go to work when they get up in the morning,” said Dugas. “I think we should be excited to go and contribute and feel valued with the difference we make.”

Support for employee well-being has also become a workplace norm as more employees walk away from their jobs.

“Once a lot of people stepped away from their workplace [during the pandemic], they realized how toxic it was… It’s one of the things that, for employers, makes the biggest difference,”  said Dugas. “Even more than maybe more salaries or benefits is having informal get togethers and bringing people together.”

Dugas also encourages open conversations about employees’ mental health in the workplace.

She’s put in place a practice where employees may discuss what colour they feel on the mental health continuum --- with the green zone indicating that an employee feels great, yellow meaning that they feel under the weather, orange indicating that they need help and red indicating that they are not functioning.

“We talk about how personally we can help ourselves try to navigate when we are in the yellow zone…to go back to the green zone,” said Dugas. “I love when I see some of our leaders pull out the little card with the colours out of their pocket … Giving people a tool to engage in that conversation is so beautiful.”

Having leaders openly embrace these conversations helps normalize mental health challenges.

“I've called and invited other leaders to speak openly about how they might have had struggles at some point to kind of make it normal for people,” said Dugas.  “I found that for me it was very impactful when I'd heard a leader in my career that said she had gone through a period where she had suffered depression and gone through how she felt.”

This summer, Nathalie's team is exploring a partnership with Honest Empathy to give employees access to an online support system and assisted journaling for therapy.

Dugas explains that she values the idea of having an anonymous support system for her employees, which is difficult to come by in Yukon.

“Yukon is not that big. It's not easy for someone to go to a support group without running into  a neighbor or a teacher,” said Dugas. “I think there are additional barriers when you live in a more remote or smaller community for people … So I really liked the part where people could interact online with a group while keeping the anonymity if it's important to them.”

While every workplace looks different, Dugas believes that all employers have the responsibility to prioritize the well-being of their workers.

“If you are a heart surgeon, you're not gonna take that seriously, you got to concentrate. But when you walk away, it doesn't mean that you cannot be happy and joyful and light, you know, like, I think we have to find that balance.”

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