The presence of psychological risks or mental illnesses in the workplace
The Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace standard was released on January 16, 2013, by the Canadian Standards Association. Canadian companies and employees across the country can turn to a new national standard to help them identify and address psychological risks and mental health issues in the workplace. We wanted to know if employers were aware of any cases of psychological risks or mental illnesses in their workplaces. This is why our last HRinfodesk poll asked readers: Have you encountered employees who suffer from psychological risks or mental illnesses (i.e., depression, bipolar) in your workplace?
Out of 308 respondents, a whopping 258 (83.77 percent) said they did encounter employees who suffer from psychological risks or mental illnesses in their workplace. Only 30 respondents said no, and another 20 were not sure.
What is a psychological risk or mental illness?
Some health experts define psychological risk as a product of a life-changing event with significant emotional, physical and spiritual consequences that can lead to mental illness.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says mental illness is “characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour (or a combination), and impaired functioning over an extended period of time. The symptoms vary from mild to severe depending on the type, the individual, the family and socio-economic environment.”
The following are examples of mental illnesses:
- Mood disorders: depression, bipolar disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Schizophrenia: a chronic (lifelong) brain disease that impairs a person's ability to differentiate between what is real and what is not
- Anxiety disorders: phobias and panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, post-traumatic stress
- Personality disorders: having certain kinds of “personality traits” that influence the way people experience the events and relationships in their lives; symptoms include: ongoing irritability, intolerance, suspiciousness and/or paranoia; chaotic thoughts and emotions; tumultuous relationships and difficulties getting along with others; poor impulse control
- Eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating
- Problem gambling
- Substance dependency: addiction changes the brain, disturbing the normal hierarchy of needs and desires
- Concurrent disorders and dual diagnosis: concurrent diagnosis refers to a condition where mental illness and a substance use problem with drugs, alcohol or gambling coexist
- Dementia: decline in a person's mental function
The PHAC indicates that “Mental illness arises from a complex interaction of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors. Mental illnesses affect people of all ages, education levels, income levels and cultures.”
Risk factors can be present in the workplace and also include:
- Family history of mental illness
- Substance abuse
- Chronic diseases
- Family relationships
- Life event stresses
"The relative effect of each of these risk factors varies among mental disorders. For example, women are at greater risk than men for some disorders (and vice versa) and some disorders typically appear in early adulthood (18 to 30 years) whereas others show a higher risk in middle age between 40 and 60 years."
Why is this issue important for workplaces?
In 2010, a National Roundtable on Occupational Health and Safety with a focus on mental health in the workplace indicated that “75 percent of the new jobs coming on stream in the Canadian economy require cerebral rather than manual skills,” and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders, among others, have been spreading, particularly among men and women in their prime working ages.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illnesses and mental health issues are the leading cause of short- and long-term disability in the country. The cost of dealing with these issues is in the range of $51 billion per year, with almost $20 billion of that amount coming from workplace losses.
Furthermore, recent court rulings are holding employers accountable for the psychological health of their employees and placing responsibility on businesses to adequately and effectively deal with psychosocial risk factors that manifest in the workplace.
However, despite the great impact mental illness has on the productivity of employees, current laws, regulations, standards, guidelines and other resources are inadequate to help employers assess psychological risks and support their staff.
This article focuses on the workplace as a risk factor but also as a support and solution to minimizing the risk and the impact of mental illness on our society by applying the Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace standard.
How can the standard help?
The hope is that the standard will introduce mental health awareness and promotion to Canada's workplaces, and lead them to greater success. The benefits of psychologically healthy employees are too great to ignore, and the risks of unhealthy employees, too dangerous.
The National Standard of Canada titled Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace - Prevention, promotion and guidance to staged implementation is a voluntary standard which provides systematic guidelines for Canadian employers that will enable them to develop and continuously improve psychologically safe and healthy work environments for their employees.
The standard includes information on:
- The identification of psychological hazards in the workplace
- The assessment and control of the risks in the workplace associated with hazards that cannot be eliminated (e.g., stressors due to organizational change or reasonable job demands)
- The implementation of practices that support and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace
- The growth of a culture that promotes psychological health and safety in the workplace
- The implementation of systems of measurement and review to ensure sustainability of the overall approach
- The implementation of key components, including scenarios for organizations of all sizes, an audit tool, and other resources and references
Some businesses will use the standard to plan their psychological health and safety program and process. By using the information and audit tool in the guide, along with existing workplace data (i.e., rates of accidents, injury and illnesses, rate of absenteeism, how employees use your benefits plan, disability rates and costs, employee survey), organizations will learn where the gaps exist in psychological health and safety in their workplace. These resources will also help organizations assess their current efforts to manage and support psychological health and safety in the workplace, and what other measures they can implement to improve or fill a need.
The standard can also help in making the business case to obtain leadership buy-in (e.g., from owners, executives, management).
Some businesses may use the standard to focus on creating policies and processes to promote good mental health. Michele Glassford has written a blog post on how to integrate the psychological health and safety standard into existing organizational policies and processes.
Others may use it to create or update training programs. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has identified increased training as the number one priority for organizations seeking to provide psychologically safe workplaces. This training would teach staff key interpersonal skills required for creating a psychologically safe workplace. In addition, it would teach the skills needed to intervene in and prevent workplace bullying and provide a clear understanding of the parties' legal obligations.
The point is to have a psychological health and safety program or processes in place that involve providing knowledge about psychological health to facilitate recognition, identification and management of psychological problems that affect the workplace. This knowledge will help reduce stigma and discrimination and increase awareness of self-care options and appropriate resources, internal and external to the workplace. However, it is important to note that a psychological health and safety program should not target specific disorders, but rather help employees improve their psychological well-being by managing stress and emotional challenges in a way that reduces the likelihood of onset of mental disorders that could stem from the workplace, and promotes a respectful work environment.
"A respectful work environment is one where employees and employers treat one another with respect, consideration and tolerance. It is based on an organizational culture that recognizes diversity, expects courteous communication, and effectively addresses disrespectful behaviour, discrimination, harassment and bullying. (Psychological Health & Safety: An action guide for employers, Mental Health Commission of Canada)"
Once the decision has been made to go forward with the implementation and/or enhancement of psychological health and safety, this needs to be communicated to all employees. A clear and concise statement of policy that has been endorsed by the leaders of your organization is a powerful way to communicate the organization's commitment to psychological health and safety in the workplace.