Web-only article from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3)
Workplace mental health was not even on most organizations’ agendas a decade ago. We certainly talked about health and safety, but not explicitly about mental health or psychological safety. We still saw mental health as not related to physical health, and the safety of our bodies as different from the safety of our minds. Thanks to research and the courage of people who speak out about their experiences with mental health issues, this is changing.
We now know that mental illnesses are one of the leading causes of disability. We also know that at least 20% of all Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.1 Two out of three people will not seek help for these very treatable illnesses because they lack information and are afraid of stigma.2
This means that we have an opportunity to not only improve bottom-line results in workplaces, but also to improve the lives of people who have mental health issues.
Stress, the body-mind culprit
Today, more and more people recognize that ‘the head is attached to the rest of the body’—and the brain coexists with all the other organs.
When one part of our body-mind / mind-body system is affected by chronic stress, trauma, illness or injury, the likelihood of other parts of the system being affected increases considerably. What does this mean? It means that we become more vulnerable to illnesses such as depression or anxiety when we experience extreme or prolonged emotional or physical stress—in the same way we become more vulnerable to physical illness or injury in times of prolonged emotional or psychological stress.
Scientists continue to debunk the myth that “it’s all in your head,” which has been a common view of mental illness and, historically, even some physical disorders like asthma. Many scientists now speak about rising stress hormones such as cortisol causing physical health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other autoimmune disorders—and mental health concerns like depression and anxiety.3
What this says is that we can do more for prevention, by controlling stress and how we respond to it, than we had ever thought possible. So, how does this translate to the workplace?
Help to guard minds is on the way
Obviously, we can’t control people’s responses or how they live their personal lives. We can and should, however, understand that identifying hazards in the workplace is the right thing to do. Workplaces that expose workers to unrelenting chaos, uncertainty, humiliation or conflict are dangerous places to work. In fact, it’s a legislated requirement under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Regulation to identify and address hazards that threaten the well-being of workers.4
It’s not a big leap to understand that we must recognize hazards to our mental well-being and our psychological safety in the workplace. Every workplace needs a strategy to reduce risks associated with these hazards. Many employers will throw their hands up at this point and say, “But I don’t even know where to start.”
Employers often don’t know what the mental health hazards are. They also worry about investing their money and resources in healthy workplace programs that might not even work. Employers are generally not cold, uncaring people who focus only on the bottom line. They do, however, want to make investments for their workers that are reasonable, effective and practical. This means they need to identify the unique risks for their workplace and target interventions to reduce these risks.
The Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) at Simon Fraser University, in partnership with Dr. Martin Shain, founder of the Neighbour @ Work Centre®,5 is working on a way to help. They are developing a way for even small business owners to assess where the issues may be in their organizations. They are also looking to provide solid advice on how to make changes.
The program is called Guarding Minds @ Work.* The really good news is that when it’s ready in late spring 2009, it will be available online to all Canadian employers at no cost.
In the meantime, a few helpful hints . . .
So, we will have a way to identify and address workplace hazards that impact mental well-being toward prevention. But what about those situations that already exist? What about the employee who is struggling to come in to work every day, whose performance and attendance are deteriorating? What about the employee who is engaged in emotional conflict with co-workers or who is feeling harassed on a daily basis? What can be done in these situations?
More good news! Over the last decade or so, many advances have been made by Mental Health Works and others in addressing even complex and difficult situations such as these.6 Learning to address these situations effectively requires training and support, but there are a few principles I’d like to share with you here:
Avoiding or ignoring issues in the workplace often makes things much worse.
If you don’t know what a good day looks like for your co-workers or employees, you won’t know what a bad day looks like and will be less able to reach out effectively.
When you can focus on the ultimate solution (productive, healthy employees in a productive, healthy workplace) and resist making it personal (blaming or shaming), your ability to achieve success will be much greater.
Learn about the many mental health issues that can distort our perception of reality, including traumatic life events. When experiencing such mental health issues, we can become defensive or fearful in situations where others wouldn’t feel offended or threatened. Trying to talk someone out of this doesn’t work. Helping them refocus on a solution can be much more effective.
If your organization offers employee benefits, make sure that you include adequate coverage for treatment of common mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety. Ensure that your employees know exactly what kind of mental health treatment is available to them. If there is no benefit plan, find out what is available in your community and share this information with your employees.
I know that these few points will not suddenly make you an expert in addressing mental health related issues in the workplace. This is not taught in business or trade school and, for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally. We need to have some education and assistance to do it right.
There are many resources available to help. Mental Health Works (www.mentalhealthworks.ca), an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, is just one example of training that focuses on managing workplace mental health issues.
Things are changing. We are beginning to see mental health issues as an important part of human health concerns. We are also starting to see how the workplace can both prevent and address mental health issues more effectively.
* Read more about the program at www.guardingmindsatwork.ca
About the authorMary Ann is the Director of Mental Health Works, an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (www.mentalhealthworks.ca). She is also Program Director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, a resource for employers who wish to address or improve workplace mental health (www.gwlcentreformentalhealth.com)
Health Canada. (2002). A report on mental illnesses in Canada. Ottawa: Health Canada.
Statistics Canada. (2003). Canadian Community Health Survey—Mental health and well-being (CCHS). www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/030903/dq030903a-eng.htm
Gabor, M. (2003). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.
Province of British Columbia. (1997). Workers Compensation Act: Occupational Health and Safety Regulation. Victoria: Queen’s Printer.
Neighbour @ Work Centre: www.neighbouratwork.com.