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11 ways to boost mental health in the workplace

No one is immune to issues, including those highly engaged with their work
Failing to have a comprehensive mental health strategy in the workplace contributes to long-term disability, unemployment, family and financial strains.

By Katy Kamkar

The costs associated with mental health disabilities are higher than those of physical related disabilities. The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated to be $51 billion per year and that includes health care costs and lost productivity due to absenteeism and sick leave.

Research findings on the incidence and costs of physical and mental health-related disabilities highlight the importance of promoting mental health and well-being in the workplace. Failing to have a comprehensive mental health strategy in the workplace contributes to long-term disability, unemployment, family and financial strains.

Various strategies could be implemented to help prevent a leave of absence from mental health-related problems or reduce the length of disability:

•Providing supportive reintegration into the work environment after a leave of absence.

•Providing stress management programs

•Aiming for work-life balance

•Encouraging use of health care professionals when someone is experiencing psychological distress

•Job security

•Having roles and responsibilities well-defined

•Having enough resources to cope with the demands of the job, particularly during times of economic difficulties when layoffs have resulted in more job demands and fewer resources

•Opportunities for growth and development

•Flexible work conditions whenever possible and appropriate

•Being provided with regular and constructive feedback and recognized for good performance

•Healthy and supportive relationships in the workplace.

No one is immune, including those highly engaged with their work. Being highly engaged with work could lead to higher work stress. Jobs requiring extra working hours such as working away from home or travelling on the job or variable hours such as being on call or working long hours are related to high work stress. Not perceiving control over work or work to personal life interference caused by changing working hours are among some of the reasons offered for high work stress.

Perceived risk of liability is also associated with higher work stress. Those who perceive the consequence of their actions on outcomes or those who view their work as career rather than a job are found to experience more work pressure and more work stress. Specifically, high work stress is mostly felt when we perceive our poor performance as having serious consequences on our co-workers, the environment and company profits.

Managers and professionals are not immune and also at increased risk of experiencing high stress. Research findings show that being in high positions and low job security, being assigned more responsibilities following the layoffs of those with higher occupational status during times of economic difficulties are more likely to enter interpersonal conflict and experiencing work to home interference. As well, high work stress is associated with reduced job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction needs to be part of promoting health in the workplace to ensure productivity and to lower absenteeism and turnover rates.

Ensuring the health of all employees and in particular those who are highly engaged in their work is of paramount importance for any organization. In general, employees who are highly engaged at work feel enthusiastic about their work, are fully involved in their work, are motivated and productive, and are less likely to quit their jobs. Thus, even those highly engaged with work could be at risk of losing their level of engagement when job satisfaction is lacking, job stress or job pressure is high, or there is work-life conflict among other factors. Ways of achieving an individualized plan for a healthy balance between work and our personal life needs to be the focus within each intervention.

As part of increasing employee engagement, we need to increase job resources to prevent burnout and to focus more on building a healthy work environment. When employees feel worthwhile and valued in the workplace and are recognized for their good performance, they are more engaged and more committed to their organization.

Work focused cognitive behavioural treatment helps to return to work faster. Common mental health problems in the workplace are depression and anxiety which are associated with decreased work performance and productivity, interpersonal conflicts, increased absenteeism and sick leave and disability.

Being away from work on sick leave often compounds the psychological distress due to reduced occupational functioning, reduced sense of self confidence and well-being, loss of daily routine and structure, reduced income leading to financial strains and at times more stress and conflict at home.

When people are unable to work, they often report the desire to return to work and regain their productivity and functioning. Thus, interventions that include a return to work component can be very beneficial to employees on sick leave and also for employers.

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based psychological treatment shown to be effective through scientific research for a wide range of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety disorders. CBT is skill-based such that it teaches various skills to better cope with the psychological symptoms, including cognitive restructuring, problem solving skills. anxiety management skills, communication and assertiveness skills and relaxation techniques. A return to work component can be integrated within CBT to help the individual successfully return to the workplace.

Developing an individualized comprehensive mental health strategy in the workplace is now a priority. 

Katy Kamkar

Katy Kamkar is a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto and assistant professor within the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. She is also the director of Badge of Life Canada, a peer-led national charitable organization for police, corrections/first responders across Canada who are dealing with psychological injuries suffered in the line of duty. She is a member of the Collaborative Centre for Justice & Safety advisory council. She is also part of the scientific advisory committee, Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia as well as a founding and credentialled member of the Canadian Association of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies.
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