Shawnee Love • January 29, 2024
In the last few years, I have been thinking a lot about work and the prevailing sentiment (at least if media reports are to be believed) that work is often at the heart of employees’ poor mental health.
The fact is negative news along with information that we have already heard or know about are a lot easier to report and get more attention online than truth and facts which are often more complicated and nuanced.
So here goes my attempt on the untold story about work and mental health.
- The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (in Canada) reports:
- “1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental illness in any given year!”
- “Men have higher rates of substance use disorders than women, while women have higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders.”
- “The cost of mental illness in Canada is over $50 Billion per year including health care costs, lost productivity and reduction of health quality of life.”
- According to the World Health Organization, the factors determining mental health including psychological and biological factors like emotional skills, substance use, and genetics, as well as social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental circumstances.
I also note that:
- People come to workplaces with incredible diversity of personality traits, behaviour patterns, as well as beliefs and assumptions about health (including who is responsible for health and even what is healthy). While some of these may be changeable, they are often deep and unobvious even to the individuals themselves and it is hard to change something you aren’t aware of. Also, existing human rights legislation not to mention practical realities of hiring (time, money, knowhow, etc.), make deep dives into these subjects at hiring fairly taboo if not simply difficult to discern in a few short interviews.
- People also come to work for different reasons and have different ideas about how work should be. They may not share their opinions, values and beliefs with their managers and yet may hold their employers accountable for their unmet expectations.
- As it relates to employment, work impacts the financial circumstances of individuals (at least the income) and represent a worker’s environment during working hours only. There is a whole lot of other time and opportunity which employers have no involvement with let alone control over.
Of course, I realize that individuals are unique that that is why the same thing can happen to two people and they can experience it differently and have very different outcomes from it.
My purpose in writing this blog is to acknowledge the place of work in worker mental health as a contributing factor. Decisions employers make can support worker mental health. Here are a few examples:
- Compensation: Paying a fair wage provides the income employees need to be free from the stress associated with not making it through to the next pay cheque. I abhor the fact that CEO pay in Canada is 246 times the average worker (according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). I point out this is a shamefully new practice which has grown worse over the last 50 years and while I am all for valuing contributions and recognizing education, experience, credentials, responsibilities, and outcomes, I have a hard time being convinced anyone is worth that much. Don’t get me started on movie, music, and sports stars!!
- Benefits & Flexibility: Offering extended health and employee family assistance plans which include physical and mental wellness helps goes a long way as does ensuring employees know what is available and how to make use of them. Additionally, being flexible when emergencies and necessary appointments arise minimizes the guilt and stress associated with health challenges of any kind.
- Expectations: Creating reasonable expectations for priorities, goals, workload, resources, hours of work, time away from work, etc. and consistently applying these expectations leads to an environment which supports the health of the whole person.
- Culture: Ensuring a welcoming, respectful, civil, and considerate workplace again reduces the likelihood that environmental factors will negatively impact your peoples’ mental health.
- Training: Teach managers and regular staff about the signs of mental illness and how to support others experiencing mental illness reduces the stigma and increases the likelihood people will ask for help and/or recognize issues early on (which can reduce the costs in the long run).
Going beyond and truly caring about the wellness of your people is like an inoculation in support of mental health. To me, caring implies wanting to help the employee, inquiring about their situation and needs, and truly seeking opportunities for a win-win-win. This caring begins with leaders who set the tone for all the rest. At the same time, being honest and transparent about what the organization can and can’t do (expectations, standards, offerings, etc.) is also critical because if an employee comes to you expecting something you can’t offer, they are bound to be disappointed.
In short, there are things you can do to support your employees’ mental well being and doing so is smart business in a world where mental health costs are rising steadily.