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Mental Health at Work

“It’s OK not to be OK.”


Calgary employers are dealing with an insidious and challenging crisis: mental health in the workplace!

Throughout North America, mental health concerns and burnout have skyrocketed. Nearly six times as many employers report increased mental health issues among employees since the pandemic began, burnout being among the most common.

Frighteningly, it may just be the beginning. Experts have predicted a tsunami of psychiatric illness in the wake of quarantining and distancing. The math is undisputable and alarming. On average, Canadian workers spend about 60 per cent of their waking hours at work, so what happens in the workplace can have a huge impact on employees’ overall health. According to recent stats, mental illnesses cost Canadian employers billions of dollars in absenteeism or sick days, disability and other benefits, and lost productivity.

Two year’s worth of COVID worries and business disruptions didn’t cause the mental health in the workplace crisis. It just exacerbated and, in some ways, prioritized it. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant impacts on personal and workplace mental health,” cites CMHA Calgary (Canadian Mental Health Association) spokesperson Amy Ball.

The Association’s recent report notes that: “The chronic stress of dealing with the pandemic is taking its toll, making basic decisions harder, sapping our energy, and leaving people plain tired or burnt out. Far from feeling the pandemic is over, most people in Canada are stressed about what’s next, with 64 per cent worried about new variants and 57 per cent worried about COVID-19 circulating in the population for years to come.” The report also cautions that two years of pandemic-related stressors, including grief and trauma, may lead to long-term mental health effects. Nearly half (46 per cent) of Canadians are stressed or worried about coping with uncertainty.

It’s important to understand that mental illnesses are real illnesses. Like other illnesses, such as diabetes or asthma, most mental illnesses are episodic. That means people have periods when they are well and productive, as well as periods when they are unwell and overall functioning is low.

According to Adam Legge, the dynamic president of the Business Council of Alberta, the respected, non-partisan, Calgary-based, business organization, “I believe we’ve always lived with, and dealt with, the effects of workplace mental health struggles. What has changed over the past decade is the openness to discussing it and addressing it. The concept that ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’

“There was a time when leaders and managers were fearful to discuss mental health in the workplace. Now I believe you can’t be an effective leader unless you can get a read on your employee’s mental health. Clinicians will always have the best information on signs and symptoms. In the workplace, I recommend looking for signs around absenteeism, presenteeism and performance.

“Depression is the most common mental health issue in the workplace,” he notes. “The good news? It’s really treatable. As a boss, leave the diagnosing to those qualified to do so. After a few sessions and some group treatment, more than 80 per cent of people can recover and be successful.”

There’s no doubt it. Of all the stressors and threats to mental health, the past two years of personal health worries and workplace disruptions have spiked the incidence of mental health in the workplace. Legge points out: “Many of the CEOs and leaders I speak to describe the pandemic period as the most mentally and emotionally challenging of their career. Although Alberta is poised to be the fastest growing economy in Canada this year, virtually every employer I speak with is constrained by labour and staffing issues.”

The CMHA report itemizes some of the signs and of mental in the workplace. Having a hard time concentrating, learning and making decisions, withdrawing from others, acting in unexpected ways, taking a lot of time off and appearing less productive than usual. Amy Ball says CMHA Calgary offers a range of virtual or in-person mental health education programs sessions for adult community groups, workplaces and organizations.

Adam Legge recommends looking for signs around absenteeism, presenteeism and performance. Absenteeism is people missing a lot of work, particularly suddenly and uncharacteristically. This has long been a sign of trouble. Presenteeism, the concept that while someone may be physically, or these days digitally, present – are they contributing with their whole self, are they able to be fully present in their work and interactions?

“Performance is an area that can require a dose of patience and empathy. If someone has been doing a job for years, and all of a sudden performance drops off, or there is an overall lack of interest in the role, connection with colleagues etc., there may be something else going on. It doesn’t always mean a mental health issue, but too often it is.”

So, with the best of intentions, what are employers to do? The workforce is more productive and engaged than ever, but mentally, emotionally, psychologically and even physically, many employees are struggling. Corporate health and wellness professionals emphasize that being healthy and feeling well at work is about more than just not being sick! A healthy workplace is one that takes all these things into consideration. It is a place where employees have a safe and clean work environment, where they have strong and supportive working relationships that give them a sense of control and influence over what happens to them, and where they are encouraged to look after their own health both at work and at home.

Isolation and remote work helped Calgarians recognize the costs of commuting to work. Child care, transportation and out-of-home meals ate-up a big chunk of their paychecks and reducing family time. For many, it didn’t take long to realize the costs of working outweighed the benefits and while people need to work to pay the bills, it accentuates that life is about more than the rat race once they all stop running.

Calgary workplaces have stepped-up the way they recognize the warning signs and deal with mental health issues at work. While some leaders are in denial or procrastinate, some savvy leaders have caught on, prioritizing mental health in their organization. They are proactive with various workplace options, from participating in workplace wellness programs, providing personal resources and support such as having somewhere to turn if employees have problems in their personal or work life, maximizing how much control employees feel they have over their job, a voice in decision-making and feeling that their opinions matter to the basics of being conscious about things like air quality, lighting, quality of equipment to make the workplace as healthy and safe as possible.

Legge mentions the workplace reality, “We’ve missed out on many of the traditional means of getting a read on the mental health of those we work with. It takes more intentionality to follow up with colleagues and check in on them in a virtual environment, because there are fewer informal interactions. Hybrid work may even be the most challenging of all for this.”

Despite some trending and stats, there is some encouraging positivity. According to CHMA Calgary, mental illnesses are treatable. Early recognition of mental health problems, referrals to the right resources and adequate treatment can help people get on the path to recovery and resume their usual work quickly. Employees can and do reach their full potential when they have the right supports in their life, including those at their workplace.

“Various factors point to likely a very strong period of expanding economic prosperity for Calgary and Alberta-wide,” Adam Legge says. “Let’s also make sure we focus on other aspects of social prosperity and health.”