Mental Health in the Workplace
Approximately half a million Canadians are unable to work due to poor mental health every week, according to a report commissioned by the Future Skills Centre and reported in Canadian HR Reporter (June 29, 2023). Thirty-eight per cent have taken time off work — nearly half of them for a month or more — in the past five years.
HR practitioners estimate that, if anything, these results are a conservative measure of the impact of poor mental health in the workplace.
“If you look at our job vacancy rate (Yukon), it’s 2.1 per cent higher than the national average, so I expect our numbers would be in line with that (study), if not more,” said Bonnie MacDonald, a peer support/ workplace wellness coordinator at Canadian Mental Health Association Yukon, working out of Whitehorse. “I think sometimes people might identify physical issues (for absenteeism) but they might have a mental root, like burnout or fatigue.”
“What I do know is not every employee is going to report when they’re absent for mental health reasons, so in reality the numbers are worse than that,” added Ellie Baergen, director of people and culture at MET in Vancouver. “Reporting depends how de-stigmatized mental health is in that workplace, what supports are available, and other factors.”
The World Health Organization recognized burnout, one of the most common forms of poor mental health, as a legitimate occupational phenomenon in 2019. “Obviously, it was happening way before COVID,” MacDonald said, “but the pandemic just pushed us into the realization that we cannot work the way we’ve been working. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg coming out of this, and we’ll see effects for over 10 years.”
Identifying the Problem
Employees sometimes don’t even realize they’re suffering from mental health issues, or how to overcome them, said Pushpinder Kaur, currently working in Kelowna after three years as an HR executive in India. While underlying causes of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are common to most populations, workers in India experience a strong stigma and discrimination against acknowledging mental health issues. While the government is making efforts to increase support for mental health, most workers still have limited access to mental health care. A large informal labour sector faces more precarious working conditions and higher income instability than other workers.
While public acknowledgement is still not always easy, there is growing recognition that family and social support play a significant role in managing mental health.
Mental health issues can show up in a variety of ways in the workplace, Kaur added. In the broader context, HR professionals should watch for increased absenteeism, presenteeism or turnover, reduced performance and productivity, or more complaints and conflicts than usual. Employee surveys can also be a good indicator of the current situation among employees, as well as changes in it over time. In addition, HR should track overall increases in referrals to the employee assistance plan.
At a department level, well-trained managers may observe changes in behaviour or get specific feedback that indicate a growing issue. It’s important to pay attention to issues raised during exit interviews or by current employees.
“With major efforts to de-stigmatize mental health concerns, it’s spoken about more,” said Baergen. “There are more programs offered, there are more metrics to measure it. From an employers’ perspective, analytics and data and visibility have increased significantly.”
Not the Same for Everyone
While anyone can suffer from poor mental health, not everyone is affected the same way. The type of job — for example, being constantly exposed to crises in emergency response or health care, or jobs that enforce, constant urgent deadlines — can make employees more susceptible to burnout, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other forms of poor mental health.
Employees’ age groups can also affect their reactions to the workplace environment.
Young adults under the age of 25 statistically show a higher occurrence of mental health issues, Baergen said. One major contributor is disillusionment; they want to do a job that matters and are sometimes disappointed when reality doesn’t live up to their aims.
“Millennials look at work very differently than previous generations do. They look at the full suite of benefits, the working environment, financial success, but also whether they’re making an impact, whether they’re giving back in a very specific way.”
Younger adults are also often facing big transitions in their lives, Kaur added. As workers age, their stressors change, from first becoming independent to supporting a family, from affordability in the moment to looking toward retirement needs. Concerns vary by life stage and can manifest differently as well.
How Did It Get This Far?
Kaur points to social media as one of today’s most pervasive influencers. It’s too easy to compare one’s own life with what others are posting, and even try to emulate them, while forgetting that most people only post their high points, not their everyday routines or setbacks. It sets an unrealistic expectation that individuals can spend time, money and mental health trying to meet in their own lives.
“The coronavirus caused huge changes in how people worked and who they worked with,” MacDonald said, “and it happened without lots of preparation to manage or mitigate the risks that came with it. They had to make an immediate pivot.”
Baergen agreed that the pandemic has had a major impact. “It decreased access to resources and doctors and help all around. It increased people’s stress or its severity if they already had it.
“Isolation played a big factor in that, too,” she continued. “The remote working environment is not positive for a lot of people; it can be but isn’t necessarily so. It affected our ability to function positively within a working environment. From an HR perspective, you really felt the challenges — there were no policies, protocols or best practices for this, no one knew how to navigate that environment. We had to make drastic change with no time for planning or resources, effective immediately, which goes against every kind of change management out there.
“Part of that situation is that it lasted far longer than people anticipated, too. That was a long time to withstand drastic change like that.”
She added that more people were unable to return to work after lockdown ended due to mental health issues. “I think the pandemic brought a lot of issues into focus for people who suffered from mental health and were isolated. Those issues increased regardless of background or culture.”
In addition to the pandemic, “There’s an increase in problems for a plethora of reasons: the work/hustle culture intensified, living costs are up so people are working longer hours and more jobs, resulting in a poorer work-life balance for a lot of people; social media and the comparative society or culture we now live in,” she said.
“There’s a North American hustle culture created that says if you’re not on the grind, you’re maybe not as successful as you should be. Or it uses the criteria of how hard or how long you’re working as a measure of success, versus actual output and results. What about hours, happiness, mental health, productivity? It’s so important to define yourself as a human being — what do I count as success and what’s important to me in my life?”
Underlying Causes — Burnout
MacDonald points to research by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leitier in The Burnout Challenge that identifies six major causes of burnout.
Workload is one of them; not just the amount of work but how we do it. We’re not naturally wired to multi-task, but more and more that is what jobs require. A person feels they must respond immediately to texts or emails. “We have to create moments when we’re not plugged in,” MacDonald said.
Relationships, with both the job and with coworkers, have a huge influence on mental health. Post-pandemic, “our nervous systems are still in protection mode, so that really affects how we relate to each other at work. It’s like we have to learn how to come back together again and work together. Part of resiliency is belonging, being part of a community. More people are struggling in general, and it’s hard because we feel each other’s struggles,” MacDonald added.
“Personal practices around gratitude, slowing down, less stimulation, body movement (not exercise) can actually create a better environment and better relationships between people and clients or community members you’re supporting. Civility, respect, and social support are vital.” She pointed to the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace that came into effect in 2013 as a helpful guide.
Values can be a source of poor mental health if employees feel what they do doesn’t resonate with who they are or who they want to be.
Autonomy, or the amount of control, on the job is important, too. Not all employees can control all aspects of their work, but being able to make some choices is at the core of being human and creates a feeling of being valued.
Visible signs of appreciation, either intrinsic or extrinsic, also contribute to a feeling of value and of being appreciated.
Fairness in the workplace matters to employees. They sense respect and trustworthiness or, conversely, when decisions seem to have been made arbitrarily or based on personal preferences.
While acknowledging many of the same basic causes, Kaur specifically adds lack of job security, poor management and leadership, bullying and harassment, inadequate work-life balance, stigma and lack of support, and inadequate training and skills.
What an Employer Can Do
Baergen discusses employer actions that fit into three loose categories.
The first category is policies. It’s important to clarify working hours and expectations, workload, overtime approval, etc., she explained. Once supportive policies are in place, ensure they’re followed: discourage excessive amounts of overtime, encourage employees to take their vacation time and ensure that team support allows them to actually rest and recharge while off instead of being stressed about what they’re not doing at work. Wherever possible, enable flexible working conditions that help employees work around mental challenges. Set good policies and then make them the norm.
Implement an EAP program, wellness programs and flexible working environments. Be transparent about your working conditions and expectations during your recruitment process.
Second is leadership. Organizational leaders show their commitment to employee mental health in the policies they set, and how they live their work lives. HR can ensure that leaders are being trained and supported, so that they care about their employees and check in on them. Put them in a position and provide them with the capabilities to provide resources to anyone who’s suffering mental health issues or needs resources/support in some area.
The third and final category is culture. Do employees believe they have a purpose? Do they feel valued and motivated, have a clear direction, and know who to go to when they need support? Does your working environment support or detract from work-life balance?
MacDonald takes culture one step further. “Recovering needs to be an everyday thing. We cannot wait for the external environment to pause because I don’t think it will. Treat your employees as humans first, then as workers. If we do that, we’ll all do better at work, because we’ll be coming from the inside.”
She continued, “Everybody was waiting for a pause, a rest at the end of the pandemic, and that’s not going to come for a long time. We have to embed recovery in our everyday lives in our homes and at work. We haven’t even understood the physical part of COVID, let alone the mental health aspects.”
“HR professionals have the tools and resources to create new policies, to change culture and expectations, and to de-stigmatize mental health issues in the workplace,” Baergen concluded. “It’s up to us to educate managers and leaders as well as employees in our organizations and set new expectation of norms and wellness in the workplace. It’s really imperative that we analyze our organization and ask if there’s anything else we can do to improve mental health in our workplace, even if it’s a small step we can take to provide a positive and safe culture.”
MacDonald added, “We are in a time of deep complexity and to look at things through single lenses is not wise. Trying to listen to more sources, broaden your thinking, look at causes and conditions that may have affected something — they are many. In terms of our own responsibility for our wellness, there needs to be mutual responsibility between employees and employers. Live recovery every day.”