Guarding Minds @ Work (as Mental Health Challenges Grow)

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By Ingrid Vaughan

The workplace can be a wonderful, fulfilling, exciting place where our skills and experience are utilized to contribute to organizational growth, a dynamic work culture and to making a difference in the world—as a team working collectively to achieve common goals.

Sadly, it appears that this is not the norm.

Mental Health Challenges All Businesses
The workplace can also be a stressful environment that contributes to the rise of physical and mental health problems and illnesses, including issues like burnout, depression, lack of focus, insomnia, and a host of stress-related physical ailments. In fact, in 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the establishment of a new Mental Health Commission of Canada. With almost one million Canadians suffering from a mental health disorder, “it’s now the fastest-growing category of disability insurance claims in Canada,” Harper said.

Moreover, the costs to the employer are very real. According to an article by Ken MacQueen, John Intini and Martin Patriquin in Maclean’s Magazine January 2008 edition, a Treasury Board study of remuneration for 351,000 public servants noted that disability claims for its two main insurance plans have more than doubled between 1990 and 2002. “Much of the increase,” the report concluded, “resulted from growth in cases relating to depression and anxiety. Stress and mental health issues are now the leading reason for long-term disability claims, ahead of cancer.”

Mounting Costs of Mental Health
Former insurance company president Bill Wilkerson is now CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health—as well as chairman of the workplace advisory board of the Canadian Mental Health Commission. Wilkerson claims that the first indicator of the magnitude of the issue was the spiralling costs of prescription drugs for maladies that were “imprecise in their nature.”

Nationally, an estimated 35 million workdays per year are lost to mental conditions, with the annual cost of treatment and lost productivity for depression and stress alone at $14.4 billion. “Just as serious,” says Wilkerson, “may be “presenteeism” —the phenomenon of stressed-out workers who show up to work anyway and accomplish little,” estimating the cost to Canadian employers at $22 billion a year.

Stigmas, Silence and First Steps
With most adults spending more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, addressing issues of mental health at work is vitally important for Canadians. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. In spite of the increase in mental health issues and a growing understanding of their impact, there is still a stigma around talking about the issues that affect employees’ capacity to be present, engaged, and productive at work.

A 2008 Canadian Medical Association study cited in the Mental Health Strategy for Canada found that only 23 per cent of Canadians would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a mental illness. The real number of people affected is likely even higher as a significant proportion of employees are still suffering in silence.

If employees are reluctant to talk about it, how can employers deal with it? MacQueen, Intini and Patriquin suggest that it begins with building mutual trust and respect between employer and employee, heading off problems in advance and believing in those employees who need help.

Legal and Business Implications
In BC, as part of Occupational Healthy and Safety, bullying and harassment in the workplace have become issues with legal compliance requirements. The Canadian Mental Health Association has indicated it hopes to attach similar legislation to psychological health in the workplace in the future. Paying attention to how this issue unfolds is good business, and human resource professionals should be thinking about these factors in a manner similar to how they think about workplace health and safety.

Psychological health impacts almost every aspect of business: finances (rising costs of insurance premiums, absenteeism, short and long-term disability), productivity, safety, and workplace morale. A psychologically healthy and safe workforce results in improved recruitment and retention, employee engagement, sustainability, and health and safety.

So what’s the first step for HR leaders to be ahead of the curve on this issue?

Guarding Minds @ Work
Enter an innovative and comprehensive set of resources, Guarding Minds @ Work (GM@W) designed to protect and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace. The program allows employers to effectively assess and address the 13 psychosocial factors known to have a powerful impact on organizational health, the health of individual employees, and the financial bottom line. Available to employers at no cost, the program provides language and consistency with current and emerging regulatory and legal standards and practices pertaining to workplace psychological health and safety.

GM@W (guardingmindsatwork.com) provides employers with a comprehensive assessment tool to help them determine how psychologically healthy their workplace is—from their employees’ perspectives. The assessment is effective in providing employers with information on where they are doing well, and where there are gaps. It also assists with implementation of action plans and follow-up evaluations to track improvement efforts and determine whether they have been effective. Surveys can be conducted and evaluated online, with a personalized dashboard for the organization, or can be conducted the “old-fashioned way” with a downloadable PDF.

Psychosocial factors are elements that impact employees’ psychological responses to work and work conditions, potentially causing psychological health problems. Psychosocial factors include the way work is carried out and the context in which work occurs.

13 Key Psychosocial Factors
The 13 psychosocial factors assessed by GM@W—identified by a large body of research as areas of fundamental psychosocial risk—are interrelated and therefore influence one another; positive or negative changes in one factor are likely to change other factors in a similar manner. Below are the factors that define a psychologically healthy work environment:

1. Psychological Support: Co-workers and supervisors are supportive of employees’ psychological and mental health concerns, and respond appropriately as needed.

2. Organizational Culture: Characterized by trust, honesty and fairness.

3. Clear Leadership and Expectations: There is effective leadership and support that helps employees know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization, and whether there are impending changes.

4. Civility and Respect: Employees are respectful and considerate in their interactions with one another, as well as with customers, clients and the public.

5. Psychological Competencies and Requirements: There is a good fit between employees’ interpersonal and emotional competencies and the requirements of the position they hold.

6. Growth and Development: Employees receive encouragement and support in the development of their interpersonal, emotional and job skills.

7. Recognition abd Reward: There is appropriate acknowledgement and appreciation of employees’ efforts in a fair and timely manner.

8. Involvement and Influence: Employees are included in discussions about how their work is done and how important decisions are made and where tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.

9. Workload Management: Employees feel that their tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.

10. Engagement: Employees feel connected to their work and are motivated to do their job well.

11. Balance: There is recognition of the need for balance between the demands of work, family and personal life.

12. Psychological Protection: Employees’ psychological safety is ensured.

13. Protection of Physical Safety: Management takes appropriate action to protect the physical safety of employees.

Growing Awareness for Healthy Returns
Understanding how these dynamics impact your employees will provide insights that can lead to prevention, early intervention, and resolution of mental health issues before they become costly problems.

Even if your organization chooses to implement its own (or another) method of evaluating its psychological health, increasing your awareness of this emerging issue will position you as a valuable resource to your organization and lead to a healthier, stronger, highly engaged workforce and an improved bottom line.

Ingrid Vaughan is an experienced HR generalist on Vancouver Island, consulting with individuals and organizations to facilitate positive change.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2015)

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