Mental Health, Work, and Wellness

7th May 2019

How’s your mental health?  In 2000 I left British Columbia’s beautiful outdoors, a good job in Richmond BC, friends and family to get back together with an ex-girlfriend in Scotland that I hoped would lead to many happy years together.  It didn’t.  It was one of the toughest moments of my life.  Broke, no job, no home, and feeling very alone.

Safe to say, my mental health was not at its healthiest at that point in my life.  When I finally did end up in a new job, I did everything I could not to show any signs of distress, or anxiety, and as a result, there wasn’t much support.  It was tough times.

Mental health is described by The Mental Health Commission of Canada as: “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his own community.”

Morneau Shepell conducted a survey indicating 60% of Canadians asked had experienced some form of mental health related condition. So ask yourself, how many people you know that have opened up about mental health issues?

Now how many people do you know that might be dealing with mental health issues that you don’t know about, and where is their support? The odds are some of these people have struggled with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression/Bipolar
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Phobias and Panic disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Suicide

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)

The Canadian Mental Health Association has been working with Canadians for 100 years to help manage a range of mental health issues.  The CMHA has a broad reach that deals with supportive housing, safe injection sites, and has an employment program in Nanaimo and provides support for people with mental health and substance use challenges.

If this post resonates with  you, the CMHA Mental Health week runs May 6th to May 12th, more information can be found on the CMHA website and you can support the week with the #GetLoud hashtag.

I spoke with Dennis Larabee, an Employment Support Worker at CMHA Mid-Island in Nanaimo about some of the changes, challenges, and opportunities around mental health in the workplace.

Changing Minds

With the broad coverage that Bells #letstalk campaign has had over the last few years, and more and more workplaces aware of mental health in the workplace, I asked Dennis what he feels has changed with Mental Health in the workplace over the last few years?

Dennis explained that generally there seems to be more awareness of mental health as a topic, but that is an area that needs more support from workplaces, and communities.  The way that we see mental health is changing and a few points that he feels are significant developments are:

  • Society is generally more open to discussing mental health and acknowledging it’s prevalence, but there’s still a stigma associated with mental illnesses
  • In Nanaimo, he can see local employers becoming engaged in and supportive of mental health initiatives, and they are seeing the benefits of supporting their workers
  • Generally there seems to be a more proactive approach to mental health in the workplace with employers than in years past
  • The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is in place and provides employers with a framework and guidance should they be looking for support

Hopefully this means we are starting to see people’s minds changing about what mental health means, how we can provide support, and also sees some troubled minds changing for the better because of healthy support networks.

Under the Influence

The recent introduction of Cannabis as a legal substance created significant concern around it’s impact in the workplace but many organizations haven’t taken as close a look at the influence of mental health in their workplace.  We know that mental health issues can influence worker health, and wellbeing, and the wider community of co-workers, family, and friends, so what influence does it have specifically on the workplace itself?  Dennis mentioned a few areas:

  • Managing mental health can have a positive influence in the workplace, by increasing employee productivity, morale, and retention among other positive influences
  • There appears to be some traction with more workplaces integrating supporting for mental health concerns in the workplace (Dennis noted particularly in Nanaimo) where opportunities exist
  • Some employers are beginning to understand that failure to manage existing mental health issues creates potential for negative, disruptive, and costly influences on the bottom line
  • There may be some trends around potential legal challenges related to employee mental health which may warrant consideration in relation to potential  legal, financial, and operational impacts.

Influencing the Bottom Line

Looking at one particular example of how mental health impacts on a bottom line, it has been estimated that presenteeism alone may be costing Canadian businesses 15 to 25 billion dollars per year.  That’s a significant influence.

Other aspects that can influence the bottom line of an organization may include:

  • Stress-related illnesses
  • Absenteeism
  • Presenteeism
  • Turnover
  • Short- and long-term disability
  • Benefit utilization rates
  • Workers’ compensation claims
  • Return-to-work and accommodation
  • Employee and family assistance plan use (EFAP)
  • Workplace grievances
  • Workplace conflict
  • Health and safety infractions
  • Human rights violations
  • Adverse events

Outside of work related issues, Canadians are coping with debt which is at its highest point in years, rising inflation, a shortage of affordable housing, and a high cost of living in many cities. These challenges alone are enough to have Canadians feeling strain on their mental health, but in addition to these challenges, our work can be a significant source of stress for many Canadians as well.

One poll suggested nearly half (47%) of working Canadians surveyed indicated that to some extent their work and place of work was the most stressful part of their day and life.  That stress can be difficult to leave at work, and may impact life outside of work to some extent.

From a purely business perspective, failure to address workplace mental health can be seen as a failure to mange a company’s resource effectively, and that can have a significant consequence on the bottom line.

Prevention, Identification, and Support

Employers may feel they have little influence on employee life outside of work, but there are definitely opportunities to influence the psychological health and safety of workers within the workplace. Dennis felt expectations upon workers in the workplace may be more demanding nowadays than in the past, and that reviewing expectations can be beneficial.

The New York Times also explored the demands on workers in the workplace.  The article noted that the employer and employee expectations in the workplace may not necessarily be new, rather the intensity of these expectations may have increased.

For many Canadians it may feel like there are an increasing number of challenges in our lives, and an increased strain on our ability to cope with these challenges.  If that’s the case, what can employers do to help manage the risk of mental health issues and illnesses impacting the workplace?  Prevent. Identify. Support.

Prevention

Employers have a vested interest in retaining existing staff, rather than training replacement staff due to absences related to mental health.

In Dennis’s experience, proactive approaches and good support mechanisms can make a significant impact on mental health in the workplace.  Dennis referenced The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The standard identifies a number of workplace factors that through monitoring, and management can prevent psychological harm in the workplace:

  • Psychological support
  • Organizational culture
  • Clear leadership and expectations
  • Civility and respect
  • Psychological job demands
  • Growth and development
  • Recognition and reward
  • Involvement and influence
  • Workload management
  • Engagement
  • Work/life balance
  • Psychological protection from violence, bullying, harassment
  • Protection of physical safety
  • Other chronic stressors as identified by workers

If an organization can collaborate as a team to identify which of these factors need improvement, much the same as other hazards in the workplace, then suitable interventions, barriers or controls can be applied over time to prevent harm and maintain the psychological health and safety of workers.

Identification

While efforts in preventing negative influences on mental health at work are encouraged, looking for signs that there may be some mental health related issues in the workplace is also key.  Dennis outlined a few signs to consider that could be symptoms of mental health issues:

  • An increase in sick days
  • Changes in temperament or behaviour (i.e. increased anxiety, difficulty concentrating)
  • Drop in quality of work
  • Workers isolating themselves from peers
  • Workers appearing less conversational
  • Change in clothing, eating, or sleeping habits
  • Decrease in personal hygiene
  • Substance use

Support

Mental health issues may be biological, psychological, environmental or any combination of all three. They can range from mild and manageable with minor interventions, to extreme, and the need for professional support.   How to support workers with potential, or existing mental health concerns is a difficult question, as each individual and their circumstances are unique.

Dennis believes it is the responsibility of both the employer, and the employee to find ways to manage mental health issues and prevent harm to the employee, and loss for the organization.  Dennis acknowledged that this can be difficult for the employer, but there are resources available to support employers in managing mental health and supporting employees.

The  following organizations have employer support information and resources, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

The Great West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace website has a number of recommendations for employers dealing with mental health related performance issues.  A few key ones identified are:

  • Where performance may be an issue, attempt to determine if there are any mental health issues at the heart of the issue
  • Consider emotional triggers, what you say, and how you say it can influence a worker
  • Focus on strengths, let the employee know where they are doing well
  • Be clear, don’t beat around the bush, or provide vague references, if you’re being supportive, being clear can help make the employee feel safe, have clarity, and prevent misunderstandings around expectations
  • Engage the employee and encourage them to find solutions to performance related issues

The Future is Bright

Despite many Canadians feeling financial stress, workplace stress, and the usual family and life related stress, which all compound existing mental health concerns, Dennis believes the future is bright around mental health in the workplace.

He sees many employers that want to be supportive, but aren’t sure where to start, and are in need of support themselves.  If these employers are able to get that support, and build a framework that provides a psychologically healthy and safe workplace for their employees, they’ll be off to a tremendous start in encouraging health, and reducing harm.

Just think, if you have employees that are struggling with any aspect of mental health, and you can engage them, support them and improve their health, wellbeing, work capacity, and effectiveness how much can you improve your workplace over all?  It’s worth considering isn’t it?

For more information on mental health in the workplace, join us May 30th where Dennis will be speaking at our Wellness in the Workplace event in Nanaimo at the Grand Hotel. For more information on the event follow this link to our events page


Posted in: Safety Blog