The relationship between your work and your mental health

About this article

Written by:Caroline Veldhuis
March 21, 2013

Alison’s 20-hour per week job at a public-funded organization started out well enough. There was a variety of things to do and she got along with her boss, who seemed to respect her as an experienced mid-career professional.

But it all went downhill from there.

“The workload was much more than could reasonably be completed in 20 hours a week…it was full-time plus. We went for months without additional staff and in the meantime I was told to just get volunteers, do whatever, just get the work done,” she says.

Her manager travelled frequently and was unavailable to provide sufficient information for projects or the periodic feedback Alison feels she needed in the work. Approvals were required on most things but drafts were reviewed at the eleventh hour. Then came multiple, major revisions, causing missed deadlines and revamped schedules – with Alison picking up the necessary apologies. She put in extra hours without financial compensation, let alone a thank-you.

With everything going well in other areas of her life, Alison says the work situation “was a black spot. Over time my boss became more difficult to deal with and that’s when my problems started happening. The environment accelerated feelings of anxiety. I felt a great deal of pressure to meet her high expectations with unclear directions and little to no feedback.

“Part of me knew the situation was unreasonable, but it left me feeling like I wasn’t good enough, that there was something wrong with me…that I couldn’t handle the job.”

Meanwhile, the part-time role that was supposed to balance with household and family responsibilities seeped into her home life, and things began to slip there.

It became a downward spiral that diminished her self-esteem, leading to meltdowns and her decision to leave the position. The feelings stuck with her, however, and she sought professional help.

Links between work and mental health

Several challenges Alison faced at work – issues around workload, control over her work and lack of acknowledgement – are not just annoyances. They’re environmental conditions that experts say can thwart human needs and are now known to be risk factors for mental illnesses including anxiety and depression.

In recent years, the “psychosocial” work environment has garnered increasing attention from occupational and public health experts in the UK, Europe, Australia and North America. A compilation of compelling, worldwide research findings on the links between work psychosocial hazards and health has even been published by the World Health Organization.

With a high burden of mental health disorders in developed countries – depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide; workplace losses due to mental disorders in Canada alone ring in at $20 billion – our mental health at work is making its way to management and public health agendas. Not just because many employees today have a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, but because they may develop such illnesses, in part, because of what they are faced with when they get to work.

Numerous studies show, for example, that “high effort/low reward” work conditions, where there is a high output of effort and energy but with little praise, acknowledgment or credit, compared to work conditions of “high effort/high reward”, are associated with a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and conflict-related problems. Low control (little decision making power) has been shown to be associated with stress, anxiety, depression, exhaustion and low self-esteem.

Research has also shown an association between lack of task variety, few opportunities to learn and low use of skills, and boredom leading to anxiety, depression, resentment and poor psychological health.

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

A total of 13 psychosocial factors at work that can impact mental health are outlined in the new, voluntary National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace: Prevention, promotion and guidance for staged implementation.

Developed and released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Bureau de normalisation du Québec (BNQ), and the CSA Group, the ISO standard provides guidance for employers and employees to improve “psychological safety” by identifying and reducing possible threats of harm or injury to mental well-being at work.

The business benefits of ensuring a psychologically safe environment include risk management (organizations have been held liable for mental injury), attraction and retention of staff, decreased absenteeism and increased productivity.

The standard and numerous supporting documents guide the assessment of management structures and communication practices that comprise the relevant psychosocial factors, including – but not limited to – workload management; clear leadership and expectations; civility and respect; psychological protection from violence, bullying and harassment and work/life balance.

Vancouver-based psychologist Dr. Joti Samra, a clinician, researcher and consultant in the area of workplace mental health, sat on the technical committee for the development of the national standard.

She says she regularly works with clients who are affected by the psychosocial conditions in their workplaces and experience mental distress.

“I see chronic levels of work stress where [people are] presented with work above and beyond what they could reasonably be expected to do. I see all kinds of people who are victims of bullying situations – a bullying boss, a bullying co-worker. I see the factors alone and in various combinations in my practice.”

She also says that psychologically healthy workplaces, such as those receiving the BC Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards, have a definite vibe. “When you walk into these places, people are respectful, they like each other, they’re kind and they recognize effort…these are the kinds of things that really matter in an organization.”

The problem of workload

Nonprofits are known to be populated with good, kind-hearted people. One of the most obvious areas for potential psychological risk in these workplaces is the amount of work itself – a chronic issue in cash-limited organizations with minimal staff.

Dr. Samra acknowledges that the world of work is changing, workloads are high and with new technologies and dual-income families, it’s harder to ‘turn off’ than it used to be. She sees lots of people experiencing chronic stress and trying to balance work with childcare and eldercare, for example. But she believes the amount of work people have on their plates is not the root of mental health distres. She explains, “People are capable of handling high workloads but in many cases, the main issue is not really workload, it’s control over that workload.

“The challenge for organizations isn’t necessarily how to do less work. It’s ‘how do we give more control to our employees so they can better manage what is in front of them?’”

To illustrate the distress caused by lack of control at work, she refers to the famous scene from the television show I Love Lucy, where Lucy and pal Ethel are unable to keep up with the task of wrapping chocolates after an unseen hand speeds up the conveyor belt. The women become overwhelmed and start hiding and eating the chocolates in an obvious panic. They have very little control over what’s happening.

Some workers in Canada may well feel that way today. A recent national study of work-life conflict released by professors Linda Duxbury and Christopher Higgins indicates that people aren’t feeling like they have much control over their work.

Revisiting Work-Life Issues in Canada, the 2012 National Survey on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, surveyed more than 25,000 people, the majority of whom worked for public and nonprofit organizations, and found that only one in four respondents felt they had “high control” over their work life (whereas 61% indicated high control over their family life). Three out of four also reported a moderate or high level of depressed mood.

The micro-level

Zeroing on the importance of having control over one’s work brings to mind ‘micromanaging’, when often well-meaning managers have a high level of involvement in the tasks their team members are doing.

Could ‘micromanaging’ be psychologically harmful?

Dr. Samra says it really depends. “Some people value, want and need structure and frequent check-ins and could be anxious without it. But another person who prefers a high level of autonomy is likely to view this style of management as punitive and become frustrated and disengaged from their job.

“It’s really about the goodness of fit between manager and employee. A manager with 20 people on the team may need to respond to 20 different needs.” She adds that emotional intelligence really comes into play, “the ability to be mindful and aware of our own emotional state, mindful of our impact on other and aware of others’ emotional state.”

A big trend in management and leadership of late, emotional intelligence helps managers to identify and communicate with individuals who may be in distress, find out what will help, and then assist in modifying factors that will support that person to reach their potential at work. Dr. Samra underscores that people really are experts in their own jobs and know what will work best for them. The key is to get people talking about the issues. She points out that communication is one thing that cuts across all factors and can contribute to a better workplace.

Alison wasn’t able to have those productive conversations at her old job. It’s been awhile now and she says it still stings a little talking about it. But she says she doesn’t blame her employer and believes there was somewhat of a bad fit.

Today she is at a different workplace, her anxiety has abated and she says the difference is dramatic. She characterizes her boss as sensitive and generous in sharing feedback with people. He is sympathetic to the fact that people have family responsibilities.

“I am also given the latitude to manage my own projects and clients without being second-guessed, which makes me feel like my boss is confident in my abilities,” she says.

“It makes you more motivated when you feel capable of what you’re doing, that you can contribute.”

Five action items to improve psychological safety at work, provided by Dr. Joti Samra

1. Ask your employees what they need, what can be done better. “Be open to criticism as long as it’s associated with an idea for a solution, a helpful, actionable item.”

2. Communicate. “You can never over-communicate in organizations. Lack of communication leads to alienation, frustration and lack of trust. You create problems when you don’t tell people things and hide the negative issues. If you share, people feel respected and valued.”

3. Have a zero tolerance policy for certain behaviours, harassment, sexist and racist comments.

4. Be kind. “You really can’t say please and thank you enough. Be respectful and kind, acknowledge people and let staff know when they’ve done a good job.”

5. Get to know people. “You don’t need to go overboard, but know the names of a person’s spouse, kids, the activities they enjoy doing on the weekends. This makes it more likely they will come to you to ask for help when they are struggling, it allows you to interact on a human level.”

Caroline Veldhuis is a writer and editor with over 15 years of experience across direct service, communications and team management roles at nonprofits. Reach Caroline at cveldhuis@yahoo.com.

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