03/09/2015 09:40 EDT | Updated 05/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Mental health challenges at work are 'final taboo' says advocate

In the early days of Kristin Bower's career, mental illness wasn't always something that her employers were willing to discuss.

"It's kind of the final, last taboo," said Bower, a mental health advocate and Vancity HR professional who has suffered from depressive episodes and anxiety for more than 20 years.

Bower, who spoke on Monday at the BC Workplace Inclusion Conference, says things have improved over the years, but mental illness in the workplace still remains largely stigmatized.

But, she says, being honest and advocating for herself has helped her deal with concerns about her ability to work.

"Advocating for myself in the sense that I may be experiencing an illness, but that doesn't mean I'm not capable and willing and eager to contribute to the workplace," she told B.C. Almanac's Gloria Macarenko.

Bower says employees with mental illnesses often struggle with whether to open up to their bosses, because they fear for their jobs. If they do disclose their illness, it's important for the employer to be compassionate, she said.

"It's just like any other private illness or experience that somebody's going through and it needs to be treated with dignity and respect."

Diversity makes business sense

Alden Habacon, director of Intercultural Understanding at the University of British Columbia, says accommodating all kinds of diversity in the workforce — whether it's people with disabilities or mental health issues, or people of diverse cultural backgrounds — just makes business sense.

"[Diversity] is part of our society in the same way that technology is a part of our society," he said.

"We don't actually ask, is technology necessary or important for our workplace? What we tend to ask is, what technology do we need to be more effective or more productive to meet our strategic goals?

"In the same way, diversity … is part of our society and if you're not prepared, if you don't have the know-how or capacity for more diversity in your organization, you will struggle … with recruitment, retention, managing your workforce and essentially making money and staying relevant in your province."

To hear the full interview with Alden Habacon and Kristin Bower, click on the audio labelled: Diversity in the workplace.