This article appeared in issue 110 of the Eighth Line Newsletter, and has been edited for easier viewing on the web. Some of the information in this article may be out of date. Refer to our current static website pages for correct information.
A Workplace is made up of People
Our society has a tendency to treat productivity and profit as the most important things to a business; the value of a person is placed only on what they contribute. But every workplace, large or small, corporate or independently owned, is made up of people, and people are not machines. We have limits and needs, and when we ignore those limits and don’t take time for our needs, our physical health and mental wellness suffer and we become less productive.
Taking Care of your Body and Mind
As health professionals, you know that sales numbers have to take a back seat to your patients’ needs; you have a responsibility to act in their best interest, so you put your patients’ health before your company’s bottom line. But do you extend yourself the same courtesy?
When you work with the public, you certainly take care of your physical health as much as possible. You recognize that if you’re sick the best way to get well quickly is by staying home and taking any prescribed or over-the-counter medicines that will help you feel better. Working through an illness can sometimes make things worse, so it’s important to give your body the time it needs to rest and recuperate. That’s why most workplaces offer paid sick leave, and the ones that don’t must still adhere to government regulations for personal leave. There are also laws to ensure that you can’t lose your job over an extended health leave if your illness is more severe.
Many people who can recognize the importance of taking care of their bodies don’t realize they should be doing the same for their minds. But if you’re tired, stressed, or upset at work, it can negatively affect your performance; those feelings can follow you home and affect you outside of work, too. Additionally, stress can be a symptom of or trigger for certain mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. You can take leave for your mental health just as you can take leave for your physical health. And, because mental and physical health are equally important, the protections in place to ensure your job security cover both.
A little urgency at work can be motivating, but no matter how good you are under pressure or how well you multitask, anyone can get worn down and stressed out under ceaseless demands. Stress at work can be particularly draining for people with chronic mental health conditions, but even without a mental illness, a person can’t function in a high stress environment for long. Without enough time to both unwind and attend to important matters at home, you will eventually feel the weight of your job. You may feel sad, frustrated, angry, or tired, and both your work and your home life will be affected.
Factors that can contribute to a stressful work environment include:
- Unpredictable hours.
- Working too much overtime.
- A constantly fast-paced environment.
- Feeling unheard or ignored by management.
- Tense, volatile, or emotionally draining interactions with employers, coworkers, or customers.
In order to keep stress at bay, it’s important to have a good work/life balance. You should be able to leave your work at work, and use your home time to relax and to get important things done. Everyone has their own time limitations, and their own ways of winding down, but here are some suggestions for possible ways to reduce stress and make the most of your home time:
- Plan and prep meals ahead of time so that you have less to do after a long day.
- Take a bath or shower after work to help you relax and separate your work and home life.
- Exercise, especially if you work at a desk most of the day. Try walking, jogging, or yoga.
- If you work on a computer, spend time away from screens for a few hours, including your phone and television.
- The digital world is fast paced, so unplug for a bit to help you slow down.
- Take time for books, puzzles, crafts, or other things that you enjoy that don’t require exhaustive energy.
- Take advantage of your vacation days and/or stress leave days if you feel you are becoming overwhelmed.
- Spend time with your family and friends.
It’s not always possible to get as much done outside of work as you like, and if you cram every minute of your free time full of errands and chores, you will never have time to relax, and you will begin to notice the effects of being overworked. Sometimes the laundry can wait.
Physical Manifestations of Stress
Some people consider stress to be “part of the job,” and may disregard the signals their bodies are sending them. But these physical manifestations of stress are your body’s way of telling you to slow down, and many physical signs of stress can be a precursor to mental crisis; if you ignore stress, it may get worse.
But what is a physical manifestation of stress? People may experience:
- Ulcers and other digestive issues: Although not the primary cause of ulcers, stress can aggravate this condition in people who are prone to it by increasing the production of stomach acid. Stress may also have a negative effect on other aspects of your digestive health.
- Headaches: In some people, stress can cause frequent, debilitating headaches and migraines.
- Lowered Immunity: Several studies have shown that stress can negatively impact your immune system and make you susceptible to colds and flus.
- Insomnia: Stress can literally keep you up at night, and the resulting exhaustion makes it difficult to function at work and in your daily life.
- Lowered Libido: While it’s obviously not a work-related problem, you may still be interested to know that studies have shown stress can lower a person’s libido.
So does stress have to be “part of the job?” In addition to mental and emotional responses to stress, the physical reactions to it can have a negative impact on your home life and your workplace performance; having a workplace that causes these problems by being too stressful is counterproductive.
It seems obvious that it’s in an employer’s best interest to make their workplace as accommodating as possible. Improving mental health in a workplace begins with open discussion, readily available resources, and a willingness to listen. The best employers recognize the humanity of their employees, and understand that they have important responsibilities, family obligations, and possible life tragedies outside of work that may require extra attention.
In addition to improving general morale for all workers, mitigating stressors in the workplace may decrease the number of mental health crises experienced by employees with mental illnesses. Flexibility and compassion in an employer can make even the most demanding job more bearable; a happy employee is a healthy employee. The added bonus is that people who are content with their jobs work harder for them; a little accommodation can go a long way to actually increasing productivity. So as an employer, what can you do to improve morale and ensure access to mental health resources in your workplace?
Here are a few ideas:
- Have easily accessible pamphlets about mental health and contact information for resources.
- Talk openly about mental health with employees.
- Ensure that employees know you are willing to accommodate their needs.
- Ensure that employees know they can take mental health days just as they can take sick days.
- Consider offering flexible hours or job sharing to help employees manage a work/life balance.
- Provide a quiet, reflective space for employees to use when stress or anxiety is overwhelming.
- Proactively approach employees who seem to be in distress and offer to help.
- Offer or arrange a Mental Health First Aid course for your employees.
Mental Health First Aid
The Mental Health Commission of Canada describes Mental Health First Aid as “the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem, experiencing the worsening of an existing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. Just like physical first aid is provided until medical treatment can be obtained, MHFA is given until appropriate support is found or until the crisis is resolved.”
Mental Health First Aid is a training course that can be taken at designated locations across Canada or in a workplace with the assistance of a certified instructor. The course teaches you to recognize a mental health crisis, respond to the crisis appropriately, and guide the person in crisis to the appropriate help. One of the best ways to make sure that everyone at your place of employment is on the same page when it comes to mental health is to take this course.
Learning Mental Health First Aid is beneficial for everyone, because anyone can find themselves in a mental health crisis situation. Training may help prevent a crisis by teaching you to recognize warning signs and take steps toward self-care. The course may also help you identify the differences between stress and anxiety, sadness and depression; both are mental wellness concerns, but the former will clear up with time and relaxation or appropriate grieving, and the latter won’t simply go away on its own. Anxiety, Depression, and other mental illnesses require extra help and treatment, and it’s important to recognize when what you’re feeling is a short term problem caused by an event, and when it’s part of a larger trend.
Breaking the Stigma
In recent years, mental health research has come a long way, and attitudes about mental health are changing. Seeking out a diagnosis and taking the prescribed medication for a mental illness is as important as taking medication for a physical illness. You wouldn’t say that someone who needs insulin should “suck it up” and live without because “It’s not that bad,” and the same is true about prescribed medications for your mind. Where once there was a stigma around mental illnesses, today there is an understanding that people afflicted with mental health conditions should not have to suffer in silence. There are medications and therapy that can help, and accessing these resources is not a weakness or a failing, it’s a positive step toward a healthier future.
Talking about mental health and wellness can be a first step to getting the help you need. It’s an employee’s responsibility to take care of their mental health needs, and it’s an employer’s responsibility to accommodate that when necessary, and facilitate it through maintaining a healthy work environment. Together, by talking about mental health, spreading awareness about mental illness signs and symptoms, and becoming informed about how people are affected by mental health issues, employers and employees can break the stigma.
Help is out there, and thanks to Canada’s dedication to improving mental health and wellness, there are several excellent places to go for further resources. The Government of Canada Employment Insurance program offers temporary assistance for workers who need to take extended leave due to illness, including mental illness. If you are having a mental health crisis, the Mental Health Help Line is a 24/7 Alberta line that you can call to help you through it. Visit the Mental Health First Aid site to book a training session for yourself and/or your employees so that you are prepared in the event of a mental health crisis. For even more resources, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association’s website; they offer a range of articles that tackle Mental Health questions and scenarios for both Employers and Employees. These organizations, plus Alberta Health, the WCB, and more, provide resources of their own to help inform the public about mental health and wellness.