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Workplace environments can be staggeringly painful, wonderfully inspiring and comforting, and anything and everything in between.

This article was originally published on Nov 12, 2010.

The headlines are staggering:

It only took me about 5 minutes to find the above news items.

Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a mental health issue, be it large or small, acute or chronic, a mild annoyance or a crippling debilitation, knows that there is a huge difference between how physical health issues and mental health issues are perceived and treated by others, including our “universal” health care system here in Canada.

Universal health care? I’m afraid we still have a long way to go. The unfortunate truth is that access to mental health care has been, and continues to be, woefully non-universal. Why is this, when studies such as those that appear in the news headlines above continue to show the devastating impact that mental health issues are having on the economy? Never mind the impacts on quality of life for those who are suffering.

The optimist in me says that one day, hopefully in my lifetime, with science continuing to show the links between mental and physical health, we’ll wake up as a society and stop thinking of mental health issues as second-class concerns, and our health care system will follow suit.

In the meantime, much of the work that can be done to address mental illness and its impacts is preventative. Intuitively, one of the best places to prevent mental illnesses from developing (leaving aside early childhood for now) is the place that we will all spend the largest chunk of our time: the workplace.

Workplace environments can be staggeringly painful, wonderfully inspiring and comforting, and anything and everything in between. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience probably more positive than negative workplace environments in my employment history, which is something that I’ve discussed in the past. However, I have also had the displeasure of working in environments that made me dread going to work every day.

The verbally abusive boss and coworkers. The bullying. The feeling that you’re stagnating, not growing in any way. The long hours. The feeling of being alone, isolated, with no one you can talk to about your concerns. Myriad other concerns. Simply put, it sucks. And no wonder people crack under the pressure. Some mental health issues, like certain kinds of depression, can be thought of as your body’s signal that something in your life is not working for you the way it should be. That something is missing. It’s your body’s “check engine” light. And just like a car, it’s far easier (and far less expensive) to be doing regular maintenance than to be stalled in an intersection with no other option than to call the towing company.

Fortunately, there are good people out there doing research into just what makes a workplace psychologically healthy. The American Psychological Association, for one, has a Psychologically Healthy Workplace program that has set out a few guidelines for employers on what they can do to help. The diagram below describes the model in nice visual detail.

via phwa.org

The examples below are taken directly from the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program’s website:

Employee Involvement

  • Self-managed work teams
  • Employee committees or task forces
  • Continuous improvement teams
  • Participative decision making
  • Employee suggestion forums, such as a suggestion box and monthly meetings

Work-Life Balance

  • Flexible work arrangements, such as flextime and telecommuting
  • Assistance with childcare
  • Eldercare benefits
  • Resources to help employees manage personal financial issues
  • Availability of benefits for family members and domestic partners
  • Flexible leave options beyond those required by the Family and Medical Leave Act

Employee Growth and Development

  • Continuing education courses
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Career development or counseling services
  • Skills training provided in-house or through outside training centers
  • Opportunities for promotion and internal career advancement
  • Coaching, mentoring, and leadership development programs

Health and Safety

  • Training and safeguards that address workplace safety and security issues
  • Efforts to help employees develop a healthy lifestyle, such as stress management, weight loss and smoking cessation programs
  • Adequate health insurance, including mental health coverage
  • Health screenings
  • Access to health/fitness/recreation facilities
  • Resources to help employees address life problems, for example, grief counseling, alcohol abuse programs, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and referrals for mental health services

Employee Recognition

  • Fair monetary compensation
  • Competitive benefits packages
  • Acknowledgement of contributions and milestones
  • Performance-based bonuses and pay increases
  • Employee awards
  • Recognition ceremonies

Would you add anything to the above list?  I can safely say that my current work environment does pretty well in most of the above areas. Can you say the same? How will you know when you are in a psychologically unhealthy workplace, and what will you do to get out of it?

Update - January 2013: The Mental Health Commission of Canada, in collaboration with the Standards Council of Canada, published a National Standard for psychological health in the workplace, titled Psychological health and safety in the workplace - Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation.

SFU Health and Counselling Services
Registered Clinical Counsellor
David Lindskoog is a Registered Clinical Counsellor at Health & Counselling who used to work as a Career Advisor with Career Services. David is passionate about suicide prevention, social justice, career and professional development concerns, and the use of role-playing games in therapy. Check out his group: Dungeons & Worry Dragons. While you're here, check out Dave's Diary! It is an ongoing series of journal entries touching on various aspects related to careers and well-being. Want to hear Dave's thoughts on a particular topic?  Send him an email, and he'll do his best to include it in his next post!  

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