Healthy workplace: Beyond physical wellness: Mental health issues in the workplace

About 15 years or so ago, companies began investing in exercise facilities, paying or subsidizing memberships to physical fitness clubs and developing recreational compounds for employees. Company cafeterias now offer low-cholesterol food such as salad, vegetarian options and low-fat, low-salt snacks.

The belief is employees who are physically healthy are productive employees. These are good initiatives by progressive companies.

However, with the proliferation of mega-mergers, downsizing and employees working longer hours to cope with high demands brought on by improved information technology, stress, depression and violence in the workplace are escalating. These mental health issues are affecting productivity and employers’ bottom lines.

Martin Shain, a senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, writes that there is a quartet of stressors that are contributors to adverse health outcomes. These are:

•High demand — continually having too much to do in too short a time.

•Low control — not having enough influence over the way your job is done on a day to day basis.

•High effort — having to expend too much mental energy over too long a period.

•Low reward — not receiving adequate feedback on performance, acknowledgement for work well done or other recognition.

Stress exacerbates depression and could potentially trigger violence in the workplace. It also affects physical health leading to high blood pressure, heart disease and infections due to a lowered immune system.

The Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health reports that 1.4 million working Canadians suffer from depression. It estimates that depression costs Canada and the U.S. $90 billion a year. It continues to say, “ half to two thirds of the dollar cost of depression takes the form of lowered productivity, replacement costs and disability payments.”

Violence in the workplace is taking a toll on human lives. Most recently a software engineer, Michael McDermott of Edgewater Technology in Massachusetts, allegedly killed seven co-workers. In a statement, the company said the employee’s actions “apparently stem from occurrences in his personal life.” The team project leader also stated that McDermott had been coming in late to work and his job performance wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Clearly, supervisors and managers, who are aware of mental health issues, are in the best position to identify some mental health problems including substance abuse by monitoring job performance and offering help at an early stage.

According to Health Canada’s Best Advice on Stress Risk Management in the Workplace the following are the “basic mental health needs in the workplace:”

•respect and appreciation;

•feeling heard or listened to;

•freedom to speak up;

•sense of confidence and self worth;

•freedom from chronic feelings of hostility and anger;

•sense of belonging to a meaningful and supportive work group;

•freedom from chronic symptoms of distress, anxiety and depression; and

•periods of relative calm and peace of mind.

To meet the above needs, organizations should examine corporate practices and policies. It goes beyond fitness facilities. The greatest challenge facing employers is the creation of a corporate culture that is also conducive to the good emotional and mental health of employees.

In a new economy that is characterized by constant and intensive changes and bottom-line oriented, attention to mental health is a tall order. But it is an order that employers can not ignore if they are to remain competitive.

Angelina Chiu is a senior program consultant at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is the team leader of the Workplace Health Consulting Services (WHCS). WHCS assists companies in the development of addiction and mental health programs. For more information call 1-800-447-1178 in Ontario or 519-337-9611 from elsewhere in Canada.

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