Putting Stress on Stress
Many Canadians feel stressed out at work, according to a preliminary report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). In April, the Commission will publish its full report on mental-health indicators, which classifies workplace stress as an area of “some concern”.
The first stage of the MHCC’s project studying the state of mental health across the country examines a variety of data sources, including a 2012 Statistics Canada survey showing that 28.4 per cent of Canadians who were between 15 and 75 years old found most work days to be “quite a bit stressful” or “extremely stressful.” The preliminary report, Informing the Future: Mental Health Indicators for Canada, published in January, identifies “stress at work” as one of 13 indicators. The full report, covering the remaining 50 indicators, is expected to promote discussion about ways to improve Canadians’ mental health.
“Work-related stress extracts a huge fiscal and social toll in Canada,” the preliminary report reads. “Stress associated with the workplace lowers productivity, increases short- and long-term absences and contributes to mental-health problems.”
Stress is a difficult concept to define, in part because it can be both a cause and an effect of a person’s mental state, says Merv Gilbert, Ph.D., a psychologist and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who has been working with researchers at the MHCC.
Dr. Gilbert views it as a situation in which the amount of expected responsibilities and obligations exceeds an individual’s ability to manage them. A mental-health issue, such as depression or anxiety, can have “a profound impact” on one’s productivity, ability to concentrate, energy level, decision-making capacity and interpersonal skills at home and at work. “That impacts the bottom line; it impacts other workers, co-workers, as well,” he cautions.
Mary Ann Baynton is an expert on workplace mental health in Waterdown, Ontario. As the executive director of Mindful Employer Canada, a non-profit organization that works with employers and employees to promote mentally healthy workplaces, she notes that stress is not always a negative factor. “It is also what energizes us when we are working passionately towards a project,” she explains. “Stress in and of itself is inevitable in a workplace.”
But it can become harmful when caused by excessive criticism or pressure from an employer or colleague. “If you are in a chronically negative, pressured or chaotic workplace, it is tough for even the most resilient employee to continue to manage stress effectively,” she says. “It really can reduce productivity. It can have health effects, and I don’t just mean health effects like depression or anxiety, but gastrointestinal problems, autoimmune problems, all sorts of conditions.”
Unproductive stress can even jeopardize physical safety, Baynton cautions. “There can be an increase in injuries and accidents, simply because stress also can distract us from doing things in a thoughtful and conscientious way.”
Kevin Kelloway, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health Psychology and president-elect of the Canadian Psychological Association, suggests that when people are under too much pressure and working very quickly, they might overlook things, such as a guard that is not in place. “Having too many responsibilities is a good predictor of occupational accidents,” he says from Halifax.
John Oudyk, a Hamilton-based occupational hygienist with Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers adds, “Anyone who has ever experienced stress in the workplace knows firsthand the effects, how devastating it can be if it is severe.” Until recent years, he notes, stress was considered not an occupational health and safety matter, but more of “a personality issue” that employees could handle with relaxation exercises and better time management.
Oudyk agrees with Baynton that mental and emotional stress can manifest itself in physical ailments. “The mental and the physical are biologically tied together. So if you are affecting one, you are affecting the other,” he says. “There is a brain-endocrine connection upon which a lot of stress research is based on.”
According to Dr. Kelloway, the health and safety effects of stress — from increased illnesses via a depressed immune system, to injuries — lead to increased absenteeism. But another, less obvious result is presenteeism: employees showing up to work, but contributing little or nothing.
“They may be sitting at their desk, but they are not really doing their work, because they are worrying about whatever it is that is stressing them or they are feeling anxious,” Dr. Kelloway explains. “People now talk about that almost as a hidden form of absence,” he adds. “So we see that in terms of lost productivity.”
One of the earliest noticeable signs of overstressed workers is in their interactions with colleagues, Dr. Kelloway notes. “When we put people under a lot of stress, one of the first things to go is their interpersonal skills. So we get co-workers snapping at each other or just not treating each other very nicely.” If not confronted, he says, this problem could lead to burnout or worse.
“Take that a little further, and you are getting into depression and anxiety disorders, and that is often what will trigger these short-term or long-term disability claims.” Almost all of the work insurance providers with whom Dr. Kelloway has dealt report that between 30 and 40 per cent of their claims are related to occupational stress via mental health or heart conditions. Stress may also contribute to workers taking longer to come back to work.
The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, published by CSA Group in January 2013, recommends taking stress into consideration when planning a psychological health and safety management system. It points to employer resources, such as Health Canada’s Self-Assessment Tool for Measuring the Costs of Work Stress and the United Kingdom-based Health and Safety Executive’s Stress Management Competence Indicator Tool, for measuring how stress is affecting workers.
“An organization with good psychological protection would be able to state that the organization is committed to minimizing unnecessary stress at work,” the CSA standard reads, adding that in such an organization, “immediate supervisors care about workers’ emotional well-being.”
Baynton believes that reducing negative workplace stress is a two-way street on which both employers and employees need to drive. “Each one of us has the most control and the most responsibility for our well-being at work and elsewhere,” she says. “If the employer is doing what they can to provide a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, and the employees are doing what they can to be resilient, manage their own stress, it is an ideal situation.”
When it comes to stress, Dr. Gilbert recommends that employers look at workplace factors that may be contributing to stress, at both a job-specific and an organizational level. This could be workload, the way in which work gets done, how workers are managed or how systems are set up. “At least be aware of that and identify those hazards and mitigate those risks as much as possible.”
Oudyk adds that employers can take a more flexible approach to scheduling and hours, particularly with employees who have ample family responsibilities and other life burdens outside work. “It is a lot of common-sense, humanistic approach to people’s relationships in the workplace,” he says. “You can make it easy for people to balance all the things they are asked to do, plus their home life, or you can set up obstacles and make it difficult.”
Another option available for employers is to take advantage of training programs and information services on stress, such as those offered by the Workers Health & Safety Centre in Toronto. These services can help to raise awareness of how stress can affect a workplace and how to reduce the negative effects at the workplace level.
One factor that could exacerbate occupational stress is if an employee has an already-existing mental illness, like depression, and does not feel comfortable admitting it openly. A recent survey conducted by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health last year revealed that nearly 40 per cent of working adults in Ontario would not tell their managers if they were suffering from a mental-health problem. A 2013 Ipsos-Reid poll, conducted on behalf of Partners for Mental Health, found the nationwide equivalent to be 65 per cent.
“It depends a lot on the work situation,” Baynton says. “In a workplace where you will be labelled as ‘less than’ or incapable, the disclosure can actually exacerbate the symptoms and won’t have the effect of improving productivity.” Conversely, an ideal workplace would encourage employees to share their mental-health conditions in a supportive way.
Dr. Kelloway observes that more organizations these days are putting effort into de-stigmatizing mental illnesses and making resources available to workers who suffer from them. “Almost every major employer has an employee-assistance program,” he points out. “There is a 1-800 number you can call to get put in touch with a counsellor who will get back to you within 24 hours, usually, and you can get some immediate help that way.” In the more fortunate cases, supervisors or managers may be willing to accommodate such employees with reduced or reassigned duties or with extra time off.
About one out of five Canadians will suffer from a psychological disorder at some point, Dr. Kelloway adds. “Since we are all in that boat, this is the place where we shouldn’t have any stigma, but for some reason, we don’t want to talk about it. So breaking down that stigma is the way to get people the help they need.”
No matter how employers choose to deal with it, work stress is an issue that cannot be eliminated completely. “There is no such thing as no stress,” Dr. Gilbert says. “Stress is a fact of life and a fact of work life.”
While 28 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 75 reported most work days to be “quite a bit stressful” or “extremely stressful” in 2012, the upheaval of the Canadian economy over the last decade has altered some of the nature and demographics of the workforce.
“What we don’t know from that statistic alone is where that is coming from and whether the sources of stress were the same in 2003 as they were in 2012,” says Merv Gilbert, Ph.D., an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver who assisted with the preliminary report on mental health by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
For example, much of the so-called “Sandwich Generation” is working, while simultaneously taking care of their elderly parents and children. “So the source of that stress may have shifted. The bottom line, nonetheless, is that a lot of people are reporting that they are highly stressed,” Dr. Gilbert says.
Although Statistics Canada’s percentages of highly stressed workers have declined a little over the past 10 years, at 28 per cent, the number still represents a large enough portion of the population to be a cause for concern. In addition, a 2013 online survey from Partners for Mental Health in Ottawa found that 47 per cent of employed Canadians considered work the most stressful part of their lives. Meanwhile, a 2015 Morneau Sheppell survey of workers revealed that 58 per cent of participants reported a negative effect on productivity, 31 per cent had taken time off work and 25 per cent had become ill — all due to work-related stress.
Jeff Cottrill is editorial assistant of OHS CANADA.
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