Is your job good for your mental health?
|Toronto Star 16 Sep 2019 at 06:01|
How healthy is your workplace? There’s a growing realization that employers need to do more to destigmatize mental health issues and ensure that the working environment they provide is not putting undue pressure and stress on employees.
The Rotman School of Management’s inaugural mental health conference this fall in Toronto will bring together business leaders, mental health professionals, students and academics to discuss the impact of mental health on the Canadian economy.
The Star spoke to event participant Jordan Friesen, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s workplace mental health program national director, about the business case for well-adjusted workers:
Jordan Friesen: Awareness of mental health issues by employers is increasing. This corresponds to a much larger change in public discourse about mental health and mental illness that we’ve seen in recent years. More importantly though, employers recognize that there is a real business case to supporting the mental health of all their employees. This can have bottom-line impacts by reducing costs and boosting productivity. Research unequivocally shows that mentally healthy employees are more productive, more engaged, and more likely to stay at work. On the flip-side, poor mental health causes half a million Canadian employees to miss work each week.
Are there things employers can do to help destigmatize mental illness?
JF: Employers should recognize that building awareness and reducing stigma are not the same thing. Reducing stigma indicates changes in behaviour toward people living with mental health conditions. Evidence suggests that first-hand exposure to the stories of people with experience of mental illness is the best way to combat stigma. We see great impact when an executive or senior leader is willing to share their experience of mental illness if they have it. It is almost an immediate gamechanger for organizational culture and stigma reduction in the workplace.
Can you provide an example of positive things an employer is doing to create a work atmosphere that supports mental health?
JF: A great example is [Mississauga-based industrial equipment supplier] Wajax. They were the recipient of our annual Workplace Excellence Award in 2019 and have enacted a whole host of initiatives to help support the mental health of their employees, including enhancing psychological benefits and developing policy to support their commitment.
If an employer believes an employee is experiencing a mental illness of any kind it’s important to approach the situation in an objective, compassionate way. Rather than trying to diagnose or label, it’s most helpful to talk about the specific behaviour that’s been noticed and how it’s impacting their work. Statements like “I’ve noticed…”, “I’m concerned because…”, and “How can I help?” go a long way to establishing a trusting and respectful relationship with the employee.
Rather than try to solve the problem, refer them to available supports like an employee assistance program or encourage them to meet with their primary care provider. Make sure to follow up and show that you care about them as a person, but also acknowledge that work needs to get done.
Are there ways an employer can reduce unhealthy stressors for their employees?
JF: One of the key factors is the support of an immediate supervisor. If an employee feels like they can go to their supervisor or manager when they are experiencing job stress — that they will be heard and that action will be taken to address the core issues causing stress — they are less likely to experience psychological distress on the job and can demonstrate resilience in the face of demanding work situations.
Training managers to engage with their employees in this way is often critical. Managers may have moved into the role because they were good at the specific function they were performing, not necessarily because they are well-equipped to manage people. Soft skills like empathy, active listening, collaborative problem-solving and emotional intelligence are core management competencies that should be sought out or developed in those that have the responsibility of leading teams.
Beyond that, taking a critical look at workload is essential to mitigate unhealthy stress at work. Do you really need that email answered tonight? Is that deadline realistic? A conscious awareness of reasonable demand, coupled with a regular, systematic method of monitoring workload are keys to proactively managing employee stress.
What are the limits? Should an employer bear any responsibility for mental health issues that may relate only indirectly to workplace conditions?
The Canadian Mental Health Association also encourages all Canadians to develop practices and habits that support their mental health, like maintaining meaningful relationships, contributing to your community, reflecting on your strengths and successes and doing things that give you a sense of purpose and meaning.
Many employers have outsourced employee wellness programs. Do you think that is a positive step — or are there problems with the supports these firms provide?
JF: There isn’t inherently a problem with outsourcing wellness programs. But in doing so, employers need to consider the specific outcomes they want these programs to achieve. I also think there is a lost opportunity for the employer to really champion the wellness agenda themselves, which can lead to greater engagement among employees.
Wellness programs focus on the health and well being of individuals, but employers need to improve the work environment to truly make a difference. Think about a fish tank — you can feed the fish but if the water is dirty they’re still going to get sick. The same goes for wellness programs. You can put all the individual supports in place but if employees are working in an unhealthy environment, the benefit will be limited.
Do you think that social media and digital communications have an impact on workers’ mental health?
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For employees, the key is to put clear personal boundaries in place around connectivity and communication. For employers or managers, it’s worthwhile to consider how your behaviour sets the tone and standard for connectivity in your workplace. Perhaps that 11 p.m. email can wait until the morning.