Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn addressed the importance of mental well-being at his second summit on post-traumatic stress disorder on October 18. More than 100 first responders attended the event.
While people from certain occupations might be more predisposed to developing mental-health issues, the digital revolution has effected deep transitions in workplaces at large and created a new paradigm that brings with it a new set of mental-health challenges that are more subtle but no less pervasive than those confronting first responders.
Constant connectivity and the ubiquitous use of digital devices have not only blurred the boundaries between the home and office. It has also hastened the pace of work by raising expectations with regards to the speed at which we respond to work emails. The increasing difficulty to switch off from work has led to a rise in burnout and stress. According to Statistics Canada, stress-related physical and mental-health issues cost employers billions in claims and lost productivity.
Familiarity and predictability are comfortable, which the digital economy is anything but. As employers stay lean and nimble by scaling back staff strength and leveraging on technology to automate certain operational functions, employees today are increasingly doing more with less. Add to that a general climate of uncertainty as seen in the rise of precarious employment, corporate cutbacks and the shrinking pool of full-time jobs, and you have a recipe for stress and anxiety.
We cannot turn the tide of the new economy, so what can we do to manage these mental challenges? Recognizing the presence of stress is the first step. With that acknowledgement comes devising ways to cope with stress, one of which is establishing an exercise regimen. Apart from reaping health benefits, such as promoting better sleep and releasing tension, physical activity also produces endorphins, or feel-good neurotransmitters that make one happy and upbeat.
Mental hygiene is also important. As our daily lives are largely characterized by the fragmentation of attention, meditation allows the mind to take a “time out” from constant cognitive distraction and free itself from cluttered thoughts and anxiety. Meditation does not necessarily mean closing your eyes and sitting with your legs folded; any hobby that requires concentration on the task at hand, like painting, gardening or fixing gadgets, will yield similar benefits.
Employers have a role to play too. While the pressure to stay lean and competitive can be intense, it is to a company’s advantage to strike a balance between keeping a healthy bottom line and safeguarding the mental well-being of their greatest assets: their people. A race to the bottom or the more-with-less approach may make the balance sheets look good in the short term, but the law of diminishing returns always apply, and the costs would likely become apparent in the long run.
A 2015 report on workplace mental health priorities by Morneau Sheppell may provide some guidance: employers who were scored favourably on psychological health and safety also rated better on several measures of workplace effectiveness that include lower absence rates, less presenteeism, higher employee engagement and lower personal stress among workers.
It is high time that occupational health and safety goes beyond the brick-andmortar approach and embrace the last frontier: the human mind.