Mental health and wellness of CSC employees

Q&A with Nathalie Dufresne-Meek

Nathalie Dufresne-Meek

Nathalie Dufresne-Meek, the former Director General of Labour Relations and Workplace Management at CSC. Between 1989 and 1990, Nathalie was a parole officer in the Ontario Region. She then completed a Masters degree in Applied Criminology and began working for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in 1996. She returned to CSC in 2006. She was involved with the Steering Committee for Workplace Mental Health Injuries from 2015 until her retirement in 2022.

As discussions around mental health have entered mainstream conversation in our communities over the last few years, supporting employees’ mental health needs became increasingly imperative to senior management at the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).

Nathalie Dufresne-Meek is the former Director General of Labour Relations and Workplace Management. Nathalie was the National employee diversity champion for persons with disabilities and a strong advocate for wellness in the workplace throughout her career. We reached out to her prior to her retirement in February 2022, and asked her to share her advice and wisdom on mental wellness at CSC.

Why is employee mental health and wellness important?

“Employees really are the cornerstone of the organization and the work that we do for our inmate and offender populations is germane to our mandate. In order to provide the best services, operations, and programs possible across the sectors and regions, and to give full credence to the mandate we have at CSC, we need to have an environment that supports good employee health, including mental health.

We want folks to be working at their best. Also, for employees to continue to contribute in their community and in their families, they have to be at their best. In order to do that, you have to be healthy—have good physical and mental well-being. That’s why mental health is so important.”

What steps has CSC taken to make employee mental health a priority?

“Commissioner Anne Kelly leads a Steering Committee for Workplace Mental Health Injuries. When the Committee was established in 2015, it really brought to light the importance of mental health. It highlighted the importance of being able to come forward and say you needed support in the workplace in order to be productive and to do your best.

It is important to hear from people whose mental health has been jeopardized. Managers are at the table to hear and share and to consider what we can do as an organization to improve the experience of people either injured in the workplace or at home. We have employees with lived experience on the committee, managers, staff from Learning and Development, as well as Workplace Wellness and Employee Well-being, a parole officer, a nurse, along with union partners.

The group evolved to providing training opportunities. We piloted a course called Road to Mental Readiness in 2016 and 2017 for the Pacific and Quebec regions, and then rolled it out across the country. It became a national training standard for everybody. We brought in a psychologist and researcher who worked with CSC to develop another training piece called Advanced Mental Strength. It is now mandatory for correctional officers, and an abridged version will be mandatory for all staff.

We have a work environment where there is often a feeling that you have to be tough. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable by telling people you have a mental health injury, or condition, your colleagues may be concerned. That all comes back to stigma. We really worked on the de-stigmatization piece.

We asked a number of employees with lived experience to come forward—really make themselves vulnerable to their colleagues—and film videos about what they were experiencing on their journey of recovery, what happened to them, and how they had been able to recover enough to continue working, or not. It was extremely touching and was another way to encourage discussion about mental health.

We wrote a guide on how to support managers when dealing with an employee’s death in the workplace. Right now, we are supporting Collins Bay Institution, which is embarking on a pilot with Wounded Warriors Canada to look at a resilience tool for staff within the institution; new tools in the toolbox are always important.

Commissioner Kelly continues to be fully invested. We have a ways to go, but I think to some extent it has encouraged people to come forward to seek the supports they need.”

Why is cooperation with other public safety departments and external organizations essential?

“We’ve engaged a lot with the Canada Border Services Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Employment and Social Development Canada. We learn a lot from them—what their experience is, the decisions they have made in their organizations, the lessons learned, and what has worked well. We are working with a couple of workers’ compensation boards across the country, so they could look at treatment options from a public safety personnel perspective.

We are also part of the Public Safety Steering Committee that supports the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment that is made up of four public safety personnel groups: fire, paramedic, police, and corrections. We talk about best treatment options for mental health injuries, as well as suicide prevention and what research is being done to address challenges.

In the past, we have also been part of developing training with the Mental Health Commission of Canada in their research and development. We give feedback on what we experience with training here to help them make it more palatable for correctional environments, as training was designed for a military environment. It is important that we maintain our cooperation with external organizations and help each other.”

What do you see are priorities CSC should focus on going forward?

“Continuing the work on de-stigmatization is very important. There is prevention work to be done. We continue to work on availability of treatment; the right treatment at the right time. We also want to make sure we are reaching out to family members tied to our staff to ensure they understand that we also have services for them, such as the Employee Assistance Program. We are focussing on equipping our managers in how they support their employees.”

What do you feel is your legacy at CSC?

“The importance of advocacy and standing up for what you believe in. I think going the extra mile to do what you can for something you believe in is going to be part of my legacy. Advocacy for someone who feels like they did not have a voice, or perhaps were not well enough to use it.

People are important. You have to be genuine and authentic in your approach with people. Take time for them, and take care of your own health. Take care of one another—that’s the message.”

CSC employees are encouraged to check out the section called “Your wellbeing” on the intranet for a variety of tips, tools and resources. The following sites are also accessible to their eligible family members:

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Gains have been made in mental health awareness and in de-stigmatising services. Last week after a tragic staff assault I saw many officers and staff attend CISM groups. This is very good progress compared to only a few years ago.
However, there is one area that is terribly neglected by CSC. Substance use. In Canada, law enforcement/first responders have up to three times the prevalence of addiction and PTSD compared to the general public (CAMH, 2018). Comparable agencies such as DND, RCMP, local police departments and health authorities have comprehensive programs that include treatment, support and monitoring of employees once they have returned to work. CSC offers nothing comparable. EAP short term solution based counselling is woefully inadequate in the context of substance use disorders. I have personally seen officers intoxicated at work or cycle through periods of abstinence and then have to go on leave once they relapse. Last year we lost an officer to addiction.
I work in addictions outside CSC and there is much more that can be done to address the issue. Comparable organizations help their employees with substance use disorders. Why doesn't CSC?