There is strong evidence that certain features of the workplace can affect employees' mental and physical health. These factors include demoralization, depressed mood, anxiety, burnout, etc. These factors increase the likelihood that an individual will experience increased stress, which in turn increases the likelihood of developing or worsening a mental disorder.
Psychological health problems can range widely, from mild psychological difficulties such as low mood, sleep difficulties, or excessive worry to severe psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression. Because milder psychological health problems are far more common in the workplace, they account for a larger percentage of the negative impacts on employees and employers.
Illness is Illness
Mental illness is a recognized, medically diagnosable illness that results in the significant impairment of an individual's cognitive, affective or relational abilities. Mental disorders result from biological, developmental and/or psychosocial factors and can be managed using approaches comparable to those applied to physical disease (i.e., prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation).
Mental distress that has not reached the level of a diagnosable mental disorder can still be a source of considerable suffering. It is possible that workplace factors may increase the likelihood of the occurrence of a mental disorder, make an existing disorder worse, and impede effective treatment and rehabilitation. On the other hand, a supportive work environment can reduce the onset, severity, impact and duration of a mental health disorder.
Both physical and mental health are the result of a complex interplay between many individual and environmental factors, including:
- family history of illness and disease/genetics
- lifestyle and health behaviours (e.g., smoking, exercise, substance use)
- levels of personal and workplace stress
- exposure to toxins
- exposure to trauma
- personal life circumstances and history
- access to supports (e.g., timely healthcare, social supports)
- coping skills
When the demands placed on someone exceed their resources and coping abilities, their mental health will be negatively affected. Two examples of common demands are: i) working long hours under difficult circumstances, and ii) caring for a chronically ill relative. Economic hardship, unemployment, underemployment and poverty also have the potential to harm mental health.
Why organizations need to be concerned
Including mental health in your business model is important to a healthy workplace. Poor mental health not only hurts the individual, it also reduces corporate profits. It's important that all levels of the workplace - including the Board of Directors, management, finance, and human resources departments - get involved to incorporate mental health at your workplace.
There is no one "right way" to create a mentally healthy workplace because every workplace is different - from the people doing the work, to the work that needs to be done, to the leaders running the organization, the size of the organization, the external environment that influences the community, and the external resources the company draws. All of these factors play a role in employee mental health.
There is also a legislative requirement for employers to protect the mental and physical health of their employees. Many provincial occupational health and safety acts have been expanded to include harm to psychological well-being in the definition of harassment. In jurisdictions that do not have explicit legislation dealing with psychological health in the workplace, the general duty clause would apply.
Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace
There are a variety of psychosocial risk (PSR) factors that impact organizational health, the health of individual employees and the financial bottom line, including the way work is carried out and the context in which work occurs. These factors include:
- Psychological Support
- Organizational Culture
- Clear Leadership and Expectations
- Civility and Respect
- Psychological Job Demands
- Growth and Development
- Recognition and Reward
- Involvement and Influence
- Workload Management
- Psychological Protection
- Protection of Physical Safety
- Other, workplace-dependent factors
Additional Key Issues
Several additional key issues have been shown to have a significant effect on employee mental health. Organizations need to consider all of these in their efforts to create a mentally healthy workplace. The following list is from "Workplace Mental Health Promotion, A How-To Guide" from The Health Communication Unit at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario available at: Workplace Mental Health: Core Concepts & Issues
Promoting Mental Health
A psychologically safe and healthy workplace is one that promotes workers' mental well-being and does not harm employee mental health through negligent, reckless or intentional ways. For example, a psychologically safe workplace would be free of excessive fear or chronic anxiety. An organization's commitment has to start at the top.
Comprehensive Workplace Health and Safety (CWHS) Program
One way to achieve a psychologically safe workplace is to create and implement a Comprehensive Workplace Health and Safety (CWHS) Program. This program is a series of strategies and related activities, initiatives and policies developed by the employer, in consultation with employees, to continually improve or maintain the quality of working life, health, and the well-being of the workforce. These activities are developed as part of a continual improvement process to improve the work environment (physical, psychosocial, organizational, economic), and to increase personal empowerment and personal growth.
Benefits of a CWHS Program
- employee co-operation
- employee engagement
- employee retention
- loyalty to organization
- morale and employee satisfaction
- productivity, and
A Comprehensive Workplace Health and Safety program has four main components:
- Occupational health and safety (the physical work environment)
- Psychosocial work environment (organizational culture and the organization of work)
- Workplace health promotion (wellness)
- Organizational community involvement
Note that these are not four distinct or separate areas. They overlap and must be integrated within the CWHS program, and not addressed in isolation. Mental health should be incorporated into each of these categories for effective workplace health promotion programs. Comprehensive programs must have multiple avenues of influence and integrate a combination of approaches to impact and reach employees at various stages of readiness
To develop and maintain your Comprehensive Workplace Health & Safety program and the continual improvement process for your organization:
- Lead (management leadership and commitment)
- Plan (organize)
- Do (implement)
- Check (evaluate)
- Act (improve)
For example, the steps for your workplace could include:
- Obtain management support - In order to begin the process of healthy workplace planning, all levels of the organization must support the concept
- Establish a healthy workplace committee -- Get staff involved
- Conduct a situational assessment -- Get to the root of the problem
- Develop a healthy workplace plan -- Plan what to do with situational assessment results
- Develop a program plan (detailed work plan) and evaluation plan
- Confirm management support -- to implement the workplace mental health promotion plan
- Implement the plan -- put the proposed program into practice
- Evaluate your CWHS program's efforts
- Continuously improve your CWHS Program based on the results of your evaluations.
Conducting a Hazard Analysis for Mental Health
A process to identify, assess and control psychosocial hazards proactively and on an ongoing basis must be established in the workplace. Employees must also be trained to report unhealthy psychosocial situations to their supervisor/manager, who will investigate and take corrective action, if required. The results of the assessments will help to set objectives and targets when developing programs or policies.
Sources of information for hazard and risk evaluation for the psychosocial work environment include:
- health and safety committee reports, minutes and/or recommendations
- workplace health committee reports, minutes and/or recommendations
- worker concerns and complaints during workplace inspections or other times
- worker exit interviews
- previous workplace risk assessments
- incident investigations (if investigation probes deeply enough into root causes)
- absenteeism, short- and long-term disability claim data
- employee surveys such as perception surveys, employee engagement surveys
- data regarding the nature of health benefit claims and EAP usage if available
Note: Because psychosocial hazards are non-physical, they generally cannot be seen during inspections or audits. It is necessary to ask employees about the stressors they experience at work. The process must be confidential and anonymous whenever possible.
What else can employers do?
Below are eight strategies that employers can use to encourage positive mental health:
- Encourage active employee participation and decision making
- Clearly define employees' duties and responsibilities
- Promote work-life balance
- Encourage respectful and non-derogatory behaviours
- Manage workloads
- Allow continuous learning
- Have conflict resolution practices in place
- Recognize employees' contributions effectively (Adapted from Workplace Mental Health Promotion, A How-To Guide.)
Additionally, employers can:
- Assess psychological safety in your workplace and develop a plan to address it. See Guarding Minds @ Work for more information.
- Develop a policy statement reflecting your organization's commitment to making workplace mental health a priority. A policy demonstrates leadership and commitment.
- Explicitly include mental health and psychological safety in your occupational health and safety (H&S) committee mandate.
- Develop policies and practices for workplace harassment, violence and bullying. Review your current policies and procedures and consider how they might be positively or negatively contributing to issues of violence and harassment.
- Provide education and training that ensures managers and employees know how to recognize hazards such as harassment, bullying, and psychologically unhealthy work conditions. This training provides concrete ways for co-workers to recognize and talk about mental health issues in general. Managers can additionally contribute to a positive work environment if they have the skills and knowledge to identify and respond to issues before they escalate.
- Educate all health and safety (H&S) committee members about the importance of mental health in the workplace.
- Ask the worker representative(s) on the H&S Committee to bring forward general workplace mental health issues that affect their workforce rather than any individual's particular situation. Require that individual privacy and confidentiality be respected at all times.
- Develop substance abuse policies (i.e., use of illicit drugs at work, alcohol consumption at work, inappropriate Internet use, etc.) and make sure that all employees are aware of them.