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Workplace Psychological Health and Safety - A Different Way to Frame Mental Health

Blog, Live Healthy, News

By: Geoffrey Thompson, RN, MPH, BSN,
MFL Occupational Health Centre

Mental health is a critical component of being human intersecting all areas of life. Did you know the average working Canadian spends upwards of 60% of their waking hours on the job? As you might imagine, the quality of the workplace environment has a tremendous impact on all aspects of workers’ health and well-being! According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem over the course of their lives. Given the additional stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that each week approximately 500,000 Canadian workers take a sick day due to a mental health problem which represents about 3% of the entire Canadian workforce. Absenteeism rates only tell part of the story. One study found that lost productivity from presenteeism (being physically present but not functioning effectively) was at least 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism. The cost of presenteeism to the Canadian economy is estimated at $15-20 billion CAD per year (MHCC).

When surveyed about life stress, 47% of respondents agreed that work-related stress represented some of the worst stress in their life (Canadian Mental Health Association). In a 2018 Gallup survey (pre-pandemic), 66% of respondents were "not engaged," leading some observers to interpret that finding as "most people hate their jobs."

These statistics are concerning and highlight the need for workplaces to prioritize mental health. Failure to do so can lead to psychologically unsafe work environments and even toxicity in workplace culture. Some signs of a psychologically unsafe work environment include failure to achieve targets, unresolved conflict, high turnover rates among the best employees, increased injury rates, increased grievances, problems with return-to-work, longer absences, and employees hiding stress and burnout.

One significant sign of a psychologically unsafe work environment is when well-qualified and otherwise confident employees "quietly quit" (or quit outright). Employees who quit quietly tend to disengage and become "demotivated" due to stress and burnout. This should be a red flag to employers, as the loss of star performers can have a significant impact on productivity and team morale.

Sadly, some employers have responded to "quiet quitters" by criticizing them for “not going the extra mile”, reinforcing biases and assumptions about certain types of workers. For example, workers suffering from burnout in caring professions such as healthcare, education and other forms of front-line community outreach may experience increased guilt and anxiety when they are unable to perform at their best. Employers should not abandon their staff to manage the negative consequences of so-called “emotional labour” (i.e., having to always put on that smile no matter how you feel on the inside). The COVID-19 pandemic has forcefully highlighted the dangers of unrelenting compassion fatigue and moral distress experienced by many of our front-line workers (you can read more about how these factors harm healthcare workers HERE). Regardless of staffing levels or how resources are managed, leadership effectiveness and workplace culture have a tremendous influence over how burnout is characterized. In your workplace ask yourself: is burnout considered “your problem” or “our problem?”

Unfortunately, the stigma and negative connotations surrounding the term mental health are creating their own barriers. We can address this in part by reframing on-the-job mental health as psychological health and safety in the workplace. When we talk about psychological health and safety, we're talking about the impact of the work environment on workers’ mental health recognizing that there is only so much a single individual can do to protect themselves from environmental or workplace stressors. Managing and accommodating diagnosable mental health conditions is part of the challenge, but the aim here is to take a whole-workplace primary prevention approach and prevent illness.

A key factor in creating a psychologically safe workplace is acknowledging and assessing the impact of work-related stressors and then creating strategies to address them. Joint workplace health and safety committees can take a lead role in assessing these factors. Example workplace factors include setting realistic workloads, clarifying leadership expectations, and transparently involving workers in decisions about how their work is done. Providing accessible support programs like employee assistance programs and other self-care tools are important, but so are policies, procedures, and healthier cultural norms.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada highlights thirteen workplace factors, which if left unchecked risk becoming true workplace hazards (refer to the National CSA Standard for Workplace Psychological Health and Safety). For example, not valuing direct input from workers or not clarifying expectations about how they can succeed in their roles, will likely increase anxiety, and stress potentially leading to burnout. Experiencing a lack of joy, meaning and purpose at work grinds a person down. As evidenced by the previous statistics, chronic negative feelings degrade trust increasing the likelihood of interpersonal conflict and low morale leading to increased rates of absenteeism and high turnover. It isn’t in the employer’s best interest to ignore these so-called “psychosocial factors”. Poor psychological health and safety also increases the likelihood of physical injuries undermining the success of every other workplace safety program. After all, you are only as physically safe as psychologically you feel. Individual workers have little personal control over workplace/psychosocial factors, which is why it takes strong employer leadership and commitment to successfully tackle these group-level challenges. Another important factor is creating a culture of psychological safety where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their mental health concerns without fear of stigma or reprisal. This means promoting open communication, actively listening to employee feedback, and taking steps to address these concerns.

Reframing mental health around psychological health and safety takes active commitment from workplace leaders who humbly take a non-judgmental stance. This opens the door to accepting shared responsibility for optimizing positive mental health for all. No one said this approach was going to be easy! It takes ongoing employer and stakeholder commitment – i.e. workers, unions, clients, health and safety committees and others in the community – to achieve sustainable results. Work and life are hard enough acts to juggle and although stress is inevitable, we can truly do more to collectively address these challenges than any one person ever could.

About the MFL Occupational Health Centre

OHC is a provincial leader in providing cutting-edge health promotion and education on workplace psychological health and safety. All stakeholders – employers, workers, joint health and safety committees, and supervisors – have a shared responsibility to learn more about how personal mental health and workplace factors impact everyone’s health and safety. OHC offers public presentations, customized workshops, and other kinds of hands-on support to workers and employers wanting to prevent illness and injury. If you’d like to learn more about how we can assist you and your team to better understand root causes of poor psychological health and safety and how to get started, please contact us. For more information about the services we provide visit our website HERE.