New Guide aims at improved mental health for Hill staff, better decisions


As the 44th Parliament prepares to get underway next week — the first Parliament to have a federal Minister of Mental Health — an all-party group of MPs is encouraging Parliamentarians to do more to take care of their mental health and the mental health of their political staff.

The group has distributed a Mental Health Handbook for Parliamentarians and Staff, a resource guide. Its authors hope it will spur more discussion and awareness about mental health, particularly among political staffers. It’s a group of about 3,000, who work with little job security in a high-stress, ‘always-on’ environment for often relatively little pay.

“It’s not an easy job,” said Senator Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist who, along with Toronto MP Ya’ara Saks, supervised the preparation of the guide. “It is not a nine-to-five job. It’s a difficult, difficult task. I think that sometimes we may underestimate how challenging it is.”

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Both authors, as well as political staff themselves, argue benefits of improving the mental health for Parliament Hill staffers can accrue in a potential payoff for the entire country.

“We want to make sure, in this unique environment, that we and our staff have the resources we need to be able to make good decisions,” said Saks, a Liberal MP who represents the riding of York Centre. Saks is the founder Trauma Practice for Healthy Communities, a Toronto-based mental health charity.

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Matthew Conway, struggled with his own mental health challenges during the decade he spent as a political staffer in the Harper era, and later as an aide to Ontario cabinet minister Caroline Mulroney. He agrees improving mental health on the Hill is in the public’s interest.

“When people are exhausted mentally, that’s not a good condition or the proper condition, to have great policy discussions,” he said in a recent interview.

Conway, now a Montreal-based lobbyist for Capital Hill Group, detailed his struggles in a Facebook post in August during the federal election. He has since become an advocate for speaking out about stresses faced by political staffers.

“There were times when all that stress and anxiety was literally paralyzing to the point that getting out of bed in the morning was nearly impossible,” Conway said.

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The stress Conway and others interviewed for this article spoke of, is not the kind of stress associated with harassment or abuse: It’s the standard, this-is-the-job-you-asked-for kind of stress that comes with a post at the centre of Canadian political life, when you’re expected to respond at all times of the night and day to the MP, minister or chief of staff.

“You’re literally attached to your phone and you’re in a situation where you’re always on. It’s like your brain never can rest,” said Conway. “And also, you know, you’re just wondering: Is my next mistake, is that the one that’s going to get me fired? Where am I going to be then?”

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Yet, Conway and other staffers say any admission of difficulty, any request for a mental health break, is not generally part of Hill culture.

“Going to the chief of staff wasn’t an option because in my view. That was putting my job or my career on the line, “ Conway said.

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That culture is precisely what Kutcher, Saks, and others seek to change.

“What I’m seeing with my colleagues in the Senate in the House is awareness that part of what we need to do is go beyond being partisan, and reach out to support each other as human beings,” Kutcher said. “Because the bottom line is that human connection is key to improving the human condition.”

For Saks, the mental health handbook for parliamentarians is a way to kickstart that culture change.

For many parliamentarians — on the Hill, in their households and communities — it’s difficult to begin mental health conversations, Saks said.

“We don’t know how to have these conversations. We don’t know how to start them, how to maintain them or continue them” and help people toward mental health resources.

Kutcher also said the very public nature of politics, including social media which is becoming a forum for political attack, ratchets up the pressure and anxiety, with the fallout extending to politicians’ families and staff.

For a politician’s children, it can be the comments about their mom or dad, he adds.

“That’s my mom and that’s my dad. How can that be? I mean, that must be so, so difficult for kids. I mean, how do you deal with that? You’re seeing more and more vitriol directed towards parliamentarians. We see a lot of hateful speech. We see attacks. We see desecration of offices. This is a kind of interaction that we just haven’t seen in Canada before. It’s not a good thing,” Kutcher said.

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The pandemic brought unique stress of its own. Many political staffers, whose working arrangements had also been disrupted were on the frontlines dealing with anxious and distressed constituents, said Stephen Yardy, an NDP political staffer and president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 232, which represents 151 people who work for New Democrats on Parliament Hill. They are the only political staff on Parliament to be unionized.

“There was a lot of stress, a lot of burnout,” Yardy said. “Parliament, with the hybrid sittings, when we’re sitting later and later at night, and then the committees. So, the hours just continued to add up. That takes a toll on you.”

As a union rep, Yardy reminded his members to keep track of their overtime hours and to be sure to take time off. But most political staff on Parliament Hill do not have the backup of a union. They are essentially free agents. There is no excuse for missing a 7 a.m. conference call, even after a sitting that may have ended close to midnight.

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It’s difficult to quantify just how many political staffers might be affected. Most work on Parliament Hill, but hundreds work from home or in constituency offices across the country. Each of the country’s 338 MPs employs around six people, between a Hill office and a riding office. Each of the country’s 105 senators likely has two. Each of the 40 cabinet ministers would have as many as 10 additional political staff. The PMO might have an additional 50. There might be another 50 political staff in the offices of party leaders.

Neither the Speaker’s Office, which administers the House of Commons budget, nor Treasury Board could provide a precise number of current political staff, but those who have worked on the Hill for decades agree it’s likely somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500.

The staff salaries for a small minority at the top end can be significant.

The top end of the salary range for a minister’s chief of staff is about $190,000 a year, while a press secretary tops out at about $120,000 a year. The minimum salary for a full-time minister’s assistant is about $85,000 a year.

But those who work for MPs — the vast majority of political staffers — earn significantly less. MPs are not allowed to pay any of their staff more than about $90,000 a year, and since an MP office operations budgets are capped at $374,000, few MPs pay anyone the maximum salary. It enables them to hire more staff at the $30,000 – $50,000/year range.

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Ministers and MPs can also divvy some of the salary cost into part-time positions.

With the exception of folks who work for senators, employment fortunes of 3,000 or so people is essentially tied to the political fortunes of their masters. New elections may mean many are out of a job.

“The ups and downs of this life both in terms of their sense of security, and also their conversations in the public sphere —  all of those compounded can be a really, really hard test of one’s resiliency,” Saks said.