Are we facing an anxiety epidemic?

Employers, leaders must act quickly to confront costly problem: CEO


Canadian employers must face up to a growing crisis of anxiety among workers — and leadership can help.

That’s according to Stephen Liptrap, president and CEO of Morneau Shepell, talking about an “anxiety epidemic” and how it can affect a business’ bottom line.

“The Conference Board of Canada states that anxiety costs the economy — just in Canada — $17 billion a year,” he said. And in looking at people using employee assistance program (EAP) services, there are twice as many now as there were seven years ago.

The size of the problem is multiplying across the continent, said Liptrap.

“Anxiety affects some 45 million people in North America. And what scares me the most is that 40 per cent of those have not received one iota of treatment.”

It’s important for businesses to realize the scope of the problem, so they can properly tackle it, he said.

“If we think about an epidemic in any other sense — and I think about (diseases like) SARS or… H1N1 or those things — we reacted to all those really quickly and I just really want people to understand that these are actually bigger than any of those, and therefore we should as a society be reacting in the same way.”

But stress and anxiety are a far more complex issue than some would think, said Kathryn Brohman, associate professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“There is a positive element of stress, which is the idea that you need some stress in an organization system to drive productivity; if you don’t have stress, I guess the opposite of that would-be complacency,” she said.

“The idea of the ability to sustain high levels of stress for a long time, I think, leads to anxiety.”

Brohman and Liptrap recently spoke at a conference in Halifax — put on by Financial Executives International (FEI) Canada — that highlighted how effective leadership can be used as tool to fight the anxiety epidemic.

Workplace anxiety growing

Young workers are suffering even more than other age groups, said Liptrap.

“Millennials, for the most part, are twice as likely to have stress, anxiety and mental health issues than any other age group that exists in the workplace today.”

“They suffer from isolation more than any other age group as well,” he said.

But young workers don’t ignore anxiety when it strikes.

“On the positive side, they are twice as likely to reach out for help,” said Liptrap, citing Morneau Shepell numbers.

“When they come in and they get help, they’re more likely to take advice than any other age group as well, so they’re better at listening.”

Overall, not enough organizations are addressing the issue, according to Christine Korol, psychologist and director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre.

“Even the ones that might care, they have their own pressures running their businesses. They have to look at how they manage their own stress.”

These days, workers are more willing to consider going on disability, she said.

But a lot of the stress and anxiety at work comes directly from the person people report to.

“Some of the research is pretty clear: It’s your manager,” she said. “How happy you are at work really depends a lot on the manager that you have, and companies don’t know how to deal with this.”

Most companies don’t have HR policies for handling the bad eggs, said Korol.

“They don’t know how to deal effectively with workplace bullying when it happens.”

A lot of employers feel their performance is being tracked at all times, said Brohman, which can also lead to an increase in anxiety.

“So many of us operate with this idea that the world around us is constantly assessing our performance, and the drive towards certain metrics-based management, but it’s a sort of high need to achieve,” she said.

“People get very fixed on that outcome. And if they don’t achieve it, they determine that they’re either stupid or lazy or not as good as everybody else.”

What employers can do

“The first thing that employers need to do is really start tracking what’s going on; they’ve got the data — whether it’s looking at health surveys, looking at engagement scores, looking at how many people are going off for what type of sickness — but it really is taking a look at the data,” said Liptrap.

Then, companies are better able to manage the level of anxiety among employees.

“How do we actively support interventions for any of those who are suffering? You essentially tell people ‘It’s OK (to talk about anxiety),’” he said.

The negative connotations of workers admitting they suffer from anxiety or stress has dropped, which makes tackling the problem easier than in past years, said Liptrap.

“We just see, time and time again, when CEOs and leaders of organizations talk about stigma, and the fact that it’s OK to ask for help and we’re able to help and get those people back to work very quickly.”

One of the easiest ways to fix the problem comes down to education, he said.

“Organizations really do need to train their managers, and the reason I say that is the front-line managers are the ones who’ve got to be able to spot people in crisis, and then they’ve got to know what resources are available and they have to be able to point people to those resources when they need them,” said Liptrap.

“Doing that little bit of training — and it can be done through webinars, and it’s not hard to do — really does make a difference.”

By sharing experiences, employers positively show employees they are not alone, said Liptrap. It’s similar to how celebrities and sports figures tell their stories and talk about mental health.

“A couple of the Canadian banks — I’ve read some of their internal HR newsletters — and they’ve actually had employees come up and talk about their own battles and what they’ve gone through, and I always think that’s more meaningful than anything else because if I read about what one of my colleagues has gone through, or have someone tell a story that just is really, really meaningful to me.”

HR should also be given more of role, according to Korol.

“I see a lot of stressed-out HR execs who are really frustrated with how they’re limited in what they can do in their role,” she said.

“But they often don’t have good policies put in place or if they do have good policies in place, (they don’t know) how to implement them.”

More training for HR departments would also go a long way to addressing the problem, said Korol.

“It would make my job a lot easier if they actually knew how to handle this, because we don’t really get a lot of experience in dealing with very negative people or people who yell and scream at you in the workplace,” she said.

“I’ve had three people last week in my private practice who each had a manager or director yell at them.”

“Knowing what to do with a difficult manager or difficult co-worker, having clear policies in place, role-plays for HR managers and directors so that they can practise talking down somebody who’s aggressive or setting boundaries in what’s acceptable are very important,” said Korol.



Stress versus anxiety

Prevalence rates for anxiety are fairly consistent but it’s possible people are getting more comfortable reporting, according to Christine Korol, psychologist and director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre.

“We’re not really seeing increases in the overall prevalence. But there’s certainly more people willing to come to therapy,” she said.

“There’s certainly a lot more stress and that would be due to economic factors and housing prices being high, and being asked to do more with less at work.”

From a clinical perspective, stress and anxiety are different, said Korol.

“The way we look at anxiety is that it’s a problem of perception,” she said. “So there really isn’t a true danger but you’re overestimating the danger of a situation or you’re underestimating your ability to cope with it.”

“Stress is different. Stress could be that you have a dinner party the night before, and wake up in the morning and there’s dishes everywhere — you’re not afraid of it, it doesn’t cause anxiety, but it’s draining. It’s one thing that you have to do,” said Korol.

“Often, most things that cause anxiety are also stressful. But not everything that’s stressful causes anxiety.”

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