How can the workplace contribute to or create mental health problems?

A healthy workplace can contribute to the mental health of its employees. When good management practices are in place and employees are valued and respected, the workplace is unlikely to exacerbate, contribute to or create mental health problems.

On the other hand, when poor management practices are the norm – and, for example, workplace harassment is tolerated, or employees perceive that they are being treated unfairly or with disrespect – the environment is unlikely to foster mental health or contribute to the mental well-being of employees.

Workplaces can have a particularly negative effect on the well-being of employees when they:

  • Create an atmosphere in which there is an imbalance between work and life
  • Perpetuate harassment, discrimination and stigma

Work/life balance

Work/life conflict occurs when employees (and employers) find their roles within the workplace and outside it are overwhelming them, or interfering with one another.

Not all stress is unhealthy. Stress is part of any job, and a 2001 Canadian Mental Health Association Survey found that employees are inclined to find workplace stress positive to a degree.

Yet many employees are finding that conflict between their work and their lives is leading to strain on the job and in the home. That strain can lead to serious health problems, including mental health problems. While not everyone who has a significant amount of stress in their lives will develop a mental illness, excessive stress can be manifest as depression, anxiety, or anger, and can cause changes in brain chemistry which lead to weakened immune systems. In turn, excessive stress is associated with poor morale, absenteeism, and low productivity.

According to a 1999 Health Canada report:

  • More than one in three Canadian employees (35.6% to 40% of those surveyed) reported a high level of work/life conflict.
  • One third of Canadian employees reported high levels of depressed mood.
  • Half of Canadian employees experience high levels of perceived stress.
  • One quarter of Canadian employees feel “burned out” from their jobs.
  • High work/life conflict is associated with:
    • greater perceived stress, depressed mood, burnout, and poorer physical health
    • reduced job satisfaction and organizational commitment
    • more visits to doctors
    • increased absence from work

To restore work/life balance, the study suggests that employers:

  1. Identify ways of reducing employee workloads. Special attention needs to be given to reducing the workloads of managers and professionals in all sectors. Employees should be asked for suggestions – they often are in the best position to identify ways of streamlining work.
  2. Reduce job-related travel time for employees.
  3. Recognize and reward overtime work.
  4. Reduce reliance on both paid and unpaid overtime by employees.
  5. Give employees the opportunity to say “no” when asked to work overtime. Saying “no” should not be a career-limiting move.
  6. Make alternative work arrangements more widely available within the organization. These might include flex-time or the opportunity to work at home for part of the work week.
  7. Look at career development and career advancement opportunities through a “work/life” lens. Employees should not have to choose between having a family and career advancement.
  8. Examine work expectations, rewards and benefits through a “life-cycle” lens (i.e. what employees are able to do and motivated to do, and what rewards and benefits they desire, will change with each life-cycle stage).

To restore or maintain work/life balance, employees should:

  1. Say “no” to overtime hours if work expectations are unreasonable.
  2. Try to limit the amount of work they take home to complete in the evenings. If they do work at home, they should make every effort to separate time in work from family time. (For example, have a home office; do work after the children go to bed.)
  3. Try to reduce job-related travel time.
  4. Take advantage of the flexible work arrangements available in their organization.

Remember that people have different responses to stress and what creates a serious problem for one employee may not be seen in the same way by colleagues.

Harassment, discrimination and stigma

Discrimination and stigma are powerful impediments to good mental health. Fear of losing one’s job, of not being promoted, or otherwise of being isolated or shamed by co-workers and colleagues may discourage employees from seeking treatment or asking for accommodation (link: What is reasonable accommodation?). Discrimination poisons working environments and complicates illness, forcing people to suffer silently rather than ask for help.

An employee’s wellness benefits everyone. Encouraging workers to get quality care for their health problems—of any kind—ultimately boosts morale and productivity.

Sources:

  • Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins. An Examination of the Implications and Costs of Work-Life Conflict in Canada. Ottawa: Health Canada. 1999.
  • Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins. Work-Life Balance in the New Millennium: Where Are We? Where Do We Need to Go? Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks. 2001.
  • Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins. The 2001 National Work–Life Conflict Study: Report One. Ottawa: Health Canada. 2002.
  • Work-Life Balance in Canadian Workplaces. Human Resources Development Canada.
  • Martin Shain. Best Advice on Stress Risk Management in the Workplace. Ottawa: Health Canada. 2000.
  • Benjamin G. Druss, Mark Schlesinger, and Harris M. Allen, Jr. “Depressive Symptoms, Satisfaction With Health Care, and 2-Year Work Outcomes in an Employed Population.” American Journal of Psychiatry 158: 731-734 (May 2001).

 

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