The Other Invisible Epidemic: Workers’ Mental Health Disorders. Sharing the Responsibility
Scientific Newsflash and Courses of Action
Mental health and work
The lockdown, forced telework, work-life conflicts, job loss and work overload are all sources of stress that workers have been exposed to since the start of the pandemic and that jeopardize their mental health. More than ever, employers, managers and employees need to unite to fight this other invisible epidemic. How can we make it through this difficult period without sacrificing our mental health?
This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke and is supported by the Chief Scientist of Québec, with the Fonds de recherche du Québec.
Camille Roberge is a doctoral candidate in organizational psychology (Ph.D. R/I) at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her thesis concerns self-management strategies used by workers exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or depression.
The contents on a purple background are the doctoral student’s recommendations.
WHAT IS MEANT BY:
An unpleasant emotion provoking physical symptoms (e.g. increased heart rate, laboured breathing, excessive perspiration, trembling, dizziness, clammy hands, muscle tension) and intrusive thoughts (e.g. worries, ruminations, obsessions, doubts, fears). Symptoms of anxiety, even mild ones, can negatively affect a worker’s functioning.
A mental health disorder characterized by a loss of pleasure and a sad mood sustained for several weeks, generally accompanied by negative thoughts, low self-worth or excessive guilt, that can sometimes lead to suicidal ideation. Depression can cause sleeping problems, an increase or loss of appetite or a loss of concentration, energy, interest or motivation. Symptoms of depression, even mild ones, can affect a worker’s functioning.
To benefit from optimal workplace functioning, a certain level of recovery is necessary. This includes five dimensions:
- clinical (e.g. a reduction in symptoms or a better ability to manage the condition);
- functional (e.g. returning to normal functioning, i.e. the same as before the appearance of symptoms);
- existential (e.g. being satisfied with life);
- social (e.g. having social contacts);
- physical (e.g. having a healthy lifestyle).
Behaviours adopted by an individual affected by a mental health disorder (e.g. symptoms of anxiety or depression) in order to manage their symptoms on a daily basis, optimize their health and prevent relapses (e.g. learning when and how to have discussions with one’s immediate supervisor to inform them of their needs). These strategies allow the worker to exercise more control in managing their symptoms and facilitate job retention by acting as protection factors.
Any intervention that the organization may initiate or facilitate that aims to prevent, treat or rehabilitate a worker showing symptoms of anxiety, depression or both (e.g. promoting healthy lifestyles or offering access to an employee assistance program).
WHAT DO THE RESULTS OF TWO STUDIES SHOW?
Certain self-management strategies are more effective for managing symptoms of anxiety or depression at work, and these should target the five complementary dimensions of recovery.
Strategy & Recovery dimension
- Setting limits on the amount of time and energy I can devote to work | Functional dimension
- Maintaining work/life balance | Physical dimension
- Thinking about my surroundings and my working conditions to identify sources of stress | Clinical dimension
- Creating positive relationships with colleagues and managers | Social dimension
- Drawing inspiration from someone who has recovered | Existential dimension
- Getting help from a health professional | Clinical dimension
- Learning how and when to have conversations with my manager about my needs | Social dimension
- Setting realistic goals | Functional dimension
- Acquiring a certain degree of control over my workspace (e.g. lighting, clutter, noise, location, accessibility, music) | Functional dimension
- Finding meaningful tasks at work | Existential dimension
The workplace can play a protective role for employee mental health when mental health interventions are implemented. 
Although the workplace can generate mental health risk factors (e.g. work overload, lack of recognition), it can also be a protective factor when organizational interventions are implemented at the primary (i.e. to prevent exposure to risk factors or to build workers’ resilience), secondary (to identify and treat workers’ symptoms in advance) or tertiary (to treat and manage a diagnosed mental health disorder) prevention stages.
WHAT CAN WORKERS, MANAGERS AND ORGANIZATIONS DO?
Set limits and be assertive
- *Learn to accept, identify and communicate your limits to your manager (e.g. I’m having trouble with this assignment). Do not hesitate to ask them what the current priorities are in order to focus your efforts appropriately.
- *Be more assertive about your needs and expectations to your manager as well as your colleagues.Clarify roles and responsibilities in the tasks entrusted to you, so that expectations are clear on all sides.
- *Identify the elements of your work environment (e.g. noise) and situations (e.g. unforeseen events) that are significant sources of worry for you. It may be wise to keep a written record of these elements to aid your thinking.
Find a balance between work and personal life
- *Make sure to follow a schedule, particularly if you are working remotely. It is imperative to draw a line between working hours and non-working hours, when you can engage in other activities (e.g. avoid checking and replying to emails outside of working hours).
- *Take the time to appreciate positive things in your life (e.g. remember how it felt to go on a bike ride with loved ones).
Build quality relationships
- *Try to create positive relationships with your colleagues and managers (e.g. take advantage of your lunch break to have more informal discussions with them; be curious and show interest in them).
- *Be grateful for the support that your manager or colleagues have given you and express your gratitude (e.g. thank them when they help you out).
- *Learn to put negative thoughts aside (e.g. try to see the positive side of every situation rather than focusing on the negative) in order to be fully present with the people around you.
Identify someone close to you who has overcome similar obstacles
- *Think of a colleague or someone close to you who has encountered similar issues (e.g. trouble meeting deadlines due to symptoms of anxiety or depression) to those that you are currently experiencing and draw inspiration from that person.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, approach that person and ask them what advice they have to manage symptoms.
- *Make sure that your employees’ workloads and the complexity of their tasks are appropriate given the resources available to them, including: 1) personal resources (e.g. resilience, the ability to make it through a difficult situation), 2) psychological resources (e.g. feeling that they are able to complete their tasks successfully) and 3) work-related resources (e.g. clearly defined roles and opportunities for development).
- Be attentive to warning signs of psychological distress that employees may exhibit (e.g. fatigue, irritability, isolation).
- Be open, sensitive and ready to listen to your employees’ work-related needs and avoid playing the role of a psychologist. If necessary, direct your employees to the appropriate resources (e.g. employee assistance programs).
Give your employees control
- * **Increase your employees’ sense of control, so that they feel autonomous in accomplishing their work (**e.g. give them the option of choosing their own schedule)
- **Offer your employees training to better equip them in problem solving, stress management and time management.
- Help your employees to find their own solutions by asking the right questions (e.g. what do they struggle with the most in their work?), then offer them appropriate paths forward according to the challenges they face.
Promote mental health (primary prevention)
- **Implement interventions promoting mental health at work, such as:
- Promoting the employee assistance program (EAP).
- Interventions concerning the prevention of psychosocial risks (e.g. stress, harassment, burnout).
- Work-life balance programs to promote a more even distribution of workers’ time and efforts.
- **Implement interventions promoting physical health at work, such as:
- A policy promoting physical exercise within your organization (e.g. allow employees to extend their lunch break by thirty minutes twice a week to take part in a physical activity).
- An awareness campaign on the benefits of healthy eating and providing healthy food in the workplace.
Offer mental health resources (secondary prevention)
- **Use an organizational health survey to identify employees in your organization who are at risk of developing a mental health disorder (make sure that the survey is anonymous and to provide psychological assistance services).
- **Offer a stress management program extending over several weeks for employees exposed to certain risk factors.
- Establish a sentinel program in the workplace; sentinels are employees trained to detect signs of psychological distress and provide immediate support and an attentive ear and then refer the employee to appropriate support resources if necessary.
- Establish a workplace mental health peer support program. Peer supporters agree to be identified within the organization so they can help other employees going through similar difficulties to theirs (e.g. set realistic goals).
Plan accommodations (tertiary prevention)
- ** Be sure to make certain arrangements available as accommodations (e.g. more frequent breaks so an employee can take their medication discreetly; a flexible timetable so that an employee can attend medical appointments without any hassles).
*According to Meunier et al., 2019
**According to Joyce et al., 2016
CITING THIS SCIENTIFIC NEWSFLASH
Roberge, C. (2020). The Other Invisible Epidemic: Workers’ Mental Health Disorders. Sharing the Responsibility. Global-Watch Scientific Newsflash, available at www.global-watch.com
Newsflash written under the supervision of France St-Hilaire, full professor of human resources at the Université de Sherbrooke School of Management.
FULL STUDY REFERENCES
1. Association des psychiatres du Québec. (2020). Repéré à https://ampq.org/info-maladie/anxiete/.
2. Meunier, S., Roberge, C., Coulombe, S., & Houle, J. (2019). Feeling better at work! Mental health self-management strategies for workers with depressive and anxiety symptoms. Journal of affective disorders, 254, 7-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2019.05.011
3. Joyce, S., Modini, M., Christensen, H., Mykletun, A., Bryant, R., Mitchell, P. B., & Harvey, S. B. (2016). Workplace interventions for common mental disorders: A systematic meta-review. Psychological medicine, 46(4), 683-697. doi : 10.1017/s0033291715002408
ALSO AVAILABLE AT GLOBAL-WATCH.COM
- Request the FREE Global-Watch Toolkit: Mitigating psychological health risks during times of uncertainty and pandemic (IN FRENCH ONLY)
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