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The Workplace Epidemic

Dealing with mental health at work


In so very many ways, the contemporary workplace is dynamic, changing at warp speed.

In the past 10 years or so, workplace health has become a more relevant, important and urgent issue and priority than ever – for employers and employees. Not only traditional health, safety and injury factors, but dealing with what some experts are calling “an epidemic of mental health” in the workplace.

According to Melanie Fuller, director of Wellness at Alberta Blue Cross, there are updated, new pressures and priorities for business leaders and employees. “For leaders, the list now includes economic uncertainty, attracting and retaining talent, engaging their workforce to support growth, training and talent development, diversity and the environment, social and governance, change management and the growing priority of employee health and wellbeing.”

She adds that the common pressures confronting employees include financial security, feeling overwhelmed as company goals and priorities keep shifting, not feeling valued, lack of career growth within the company, being promoted without training and personal stressors invariably impacting mental focus at work.

Most business leaders, health and HR professionals agree about a lingering irony about work and workers. “Workplaces can play an essential and exciting part in generating and maintaining positive mental health, giving employees an opportunity to feel productive and be a strong contributor to  wellbeing,” Fuller says with enthusiasm.

“But workplaces can also be a stressful environment, contributing to a grab bag of mental health problems and illnesses.”

It is very much a Calgary problem, an Alberta problem, and even a global workplace problem.

According to the World Health Organization (2024), more than half the world’s population is currently working,  and 15 per cent of working-age adults live with a mental disorder. Globally, more than 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety alone.

Mental health conditions can also impact families, careers, colleagues, communities and society at large.

The facts and trending emphasize that no workplace is immune from mental health risks, and limiting the company’s focus to physical occupational health and safety is a stale and meaningless cliché. Reality is that, too often, mental health issues at work are insidious, stealth and subtle. Sometimes unreported and untreated.

Recent trending and Statistics Canada surveys are unanimous. Mental health in the workplace is a crucial Canadian health issue and a big business problem which significantly affects the bottom line.

In-office or by-remote, with most adults spending more of their waking hours doing work than anything else, addressing issues of mental health at work is vitally important for employers and employees.

According to Health Canada, 70 per cent of Canadian employees are concerned about the psychological health and safety of their workplace, and 14 per cent do not think their workplace is healthy or safe.

According to StatsCan, those sentiments not only take a detrimental personal toll but contribute to staggering economic costs. About 30 per cent of short and long-term disability claims in Canada are attributed to mental health problems and illnesses. And the total cost from mental health problems to the Canadian economy exceeds $50 billion annually.

Tracking the possible causes of mental health in the workplace gets tricky, mostly because it is so individual and personal.

“One study of healthcare workers found that some major obstacles to workplace wellness include stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges,” explains Fawna Bews, on the Working Stronger Team of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta Division. “These challenges are caused by heavy workloads, long shifts, a fast pace, lack of physical or psychological safety, perceived job security, and workplace related bullying or lack of social support.”

Robert Olson, research librarian at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta Division notes that “According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, other significant workplace issues are relationships, presenteeism, job burnout, harassment, violence and bullying (including mobbing).“

While mental health issues in the workplace may not be a new phenomenon, the incidence is alarming. Some say it is an epidemic. And although woke references have done away with dated references to “nervous breakdowns,” burnout is now a fact of workplace mental health life.

Often overlooked, experts warn that the signs of burnout are similar. The WHO characterizes burnout as an increasingly common syndrome of unmanageable workplace stress. The WHO also points out that employees who experience burnout will likely also experience feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from the job or feelings of negativism or cynicism towards the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. 

HR professionals explain that, although mental health in the workplace may seem like all-of-a-sudden and blameable on COVID, the situation has been lingering long before pandemic disruptions and the surge of work-from-remote trending.

“Anecdotally, we hear that, because of the increase in awareness of mental health and the work that has been done to reduce stigma over the past 10 years, people are more open than ever about their stress, struggles and mental health,” Bews says.

“At the same time, it seems that people are feeling more insecure at work. People say that changes to the workplace related to the pandemic, polarization on multiple issues, including political and other divisiveness exacerbating workplace stress, and financial stresses have contributed to a feeling of insecurity. People feel that they are putting more in and getting less out of their work.”

Spotting common signs of stress and depression at work can be difficult, Olson admits. “People respond in different ways and some people mask their struggles exceptionally well. Changes in work, sleep, mood, confidence, motivation, appearance, perceived substance use, relationships, patience and productivity are signs that someone may be struggling.”

In many situations, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta Division suggests a check-in is warranted. They explain other common warning signs like stress and depression showing through as  physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems and diminished immunity.

When it comes to recognizing and dealing with mental health issues at work, a sad, unfortunate but real negative challenge is stigma.

Health care professionals caution that mental health stigma is the most significant barrier which suppress and complicate employees from seeking help. Evidence suggests that in workplaces where pro-active “it’s all right to not be all right” programs addressing mental health have been adopted, the stigma factor is reduced, and employees self-report higher levels of resilience and coping abilities.

“Companies need to foster a workplace culture where mental health is positively promoted and help-seeking is encouraged,” Fawna Bews points out. “Strong leadership is crucial for this cultural shift to occur. It is an undisputable workplace fact and a business positive! Businesses that adopt wellness programs reduce stigma and increase worker resiliency and coping abilities.”

The proactive and positive essential is spotting a mental health situation before it becomes a problem. And, of course, doing something about it. Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace may not be easy but it is critically worthwhile priority and a business win-win.

Building a supportive work environment that promotes mental well-being has benefits for everyone. It keeps the workforce strong and competitive with engagement, morale, satisfaction, retention and recruitment and productivity. And it has been shown to reduce absenteeism, grievances, health costs, medical leave and disability and reduces workplace injuries.

No doubt about it. Mental health in the workplace is  a vital fact of today’s business life. “When organizations shift their thinking and embed wellbeing as a strategic business enabler, prioritizing employee wellbeing, they see increased employee engagement, productivity and overall organizational success,” Alberta Blue Cross’ Melanie Fuller says with positivity.