Personal trauma spills into people's workplace: survey

'We've got an obligation as employers to make sure that there's sufficient support and sufficient access to resources,' says HR leader

Personal trauma spills into people's workplace: survey

When people suffer shocking negative life events, it’s having a big impact on the workplace, according to a new survey.

It found that 39% of workers said they have experienced a painful incident in the past and 50% reported this has had a significant impact on their overall mental health.

This resulted in a negative score of 11 points lower than the national average and 18 points lower than those who haven’t suffered from such an event, according to the TELUS Health mental health index.  

Female workers are 50% more likely to have experienced such an experience, found the report, which heard from 3,000 employees in Canada between March 6 and March 13, and workers younger than 40 are 60 per cent more likely to report this had an ongoing negative impact.

VP of people and culture cites mental health study

For one senior HR leader, these troubling results align with a similar study it completed recently around employee mental health.

“There’s definitely trauma that is not necessarily caused by the workplace but it’s definitely carrying over into the workplace for so many people,” says Kirsten I’Anson, vice-president of people and culture at Community Savings Credit Union (CSCU) in Vancouver.

 “The recognition of that is the first point of action but the second is really making sure that we’ve all got strategies in place, not just to acknowledge that but to act off the back of that.”

The credit union recently partnered with UBC on a study looking at men’s mental health.

“From our own report, we found that 11% of respondents reported weekly or daily bullying; we have 75% of respondents reporting dread about going to work; and 55% reported being lonely,” says I’Anson.

Think holistically about mental, physical wellness

Employers will have to address this fact, says I’Anson, if they aren’t already doing so.

“We know that people spend the majority of their waking hours in the workplace. There’s no getting away from the fact that people can’t leave their troubles behind them when they’re at work; it’s part of their day-to-day existence and as such, we’ve got an obligation as employers to recognize that and make sure that there’s sufficient support, and that there’s sufficient access to resources and help for our teams.”

This might require a shift in attitudes, as poor mental health cannot always be seen and identified, she says.

“When I think about those statistics, if employers had that number of people with broken arms or legs, we would be sued for negligence for not doing anything about that, so rather than when you talk about someone being sick, you think about them having a cold or having the flu, we just need that understanding and that interpretation to be shifted, where wellness is more holistically to encompass mental and physical wellness.”

“I remember someone saying to me: ‘This person’s always at work. If they have really bad mental health problems, they would show a lot of absenteeism,’ and in fact, we know that’s not the case. When you look at that report from UBC looking at mental health, that’s not necessarily a sign that someone is unhealthy at all but it can bring be interpreted as that. The first thing is not to make an assumption that we can all recognize signs of distress, trauma and mental disorder.”

More workers are talking about mental health at work, according to another survey.

At CSCU, the company boosted its mental health coverage up to $2,000 per year, which includes spouses. It also has brought in registered clinical counsellors to talk with the workforce about mental health issues through town halls and other similar sessions, and that has resulted in an uptick of usage.

“We’ve seen the usage of mental health support go up between March [2023] to March last year, and it’s gone up by 66%. There may be a number of contributing factors but we are very confident that the highlighting that we’ve done on mental health in the workplace, and the initiatives that we run, the campaigns that we’ve run, we know that these all contributed to that uptake in seeking that mental health support,” says I’Anson.

Make training for leaders ‘mandatory’

So how can HR better support employees who might be struggling from negative mental health? Conversations are a great first step but understanding who might be suffering requires training.

“Before thinking about the conversation, we’ve got to think about that education piece. Education and exposure to conversations about mental health and seeking support have to become the norm before we get into the nuances of what conversation we’re going to be having,” says I’Anson.

Instead of requesting organizational leaders take these types of courses, “it’s got to be mandatory that they have mental health first-aid training so they can start to recognize symptoms,” she says.

These training programs should also be cascaded down to front-line workers, according to I’Anson to increase the organization’s “mental-health literacy.”

“There are a lot of people who might be going through depression, showing symptoms of trauma but not understanding it themselves so we also need to make sure that teams that we’re supporting have that self-awareness, and we’re giving them the opportunity to build up that knowledge, build up that literacy — that doesn’t happen by accident.”

“You can’t expect that everyone’s got high emotional intelligence or high self-awareness or understanding of the complexity of trauma or mental health — you’ve got to make sure you’re providing that education,” she says.


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