Addressing mental health in the workplace
“Miss Isaacs, what do you do when you get mad?”
That was the question my boss asked me several years ago.
It was early in my career and as I sat in his well-appointed office, I hesitated for a moment, wondering why he was asking me this question.
I truthfully replied that I avoid getting mad at work. I went on to say that taking deep breaths, helped me diffuse anxiety and master my emotional response to difficult situations.
He shook his head and said, that’s not what he meant. He bluntly asked me to confirm a rumor that I had consulted a psychotherapist on a regular basis.
I answered in the affirmative, stating that like many people, I had been struggling with anxiety. Puzzled, I asked him why we were having this conversation.
As one of his high-performing employees, he said he couldn’t believe the rumor, the source of which he declined to divulge. I was up for a promotion, but the person to whom I was to report chose to believe the rumor and declined to accept me on his team.
Although upsetting, this conversation and line of reasoning was not surprising to me. Long before I had this conversation, I was making plans to leave the organization because of the double standards that prevailed.
Male employees were promoted, despite having problems with alcohol and using their positions of authority inappropriately. The leadership of the organization did not consider that these aberrant behaviours could be symptomatic of underlying mental health issues that went undiagnosed and untreated. Yet high-performing junior employees, mainly women, were under pressure to work long hours with limited resources and little or no recognition.
…But more on my story to come later in this article…
October 10, 2021 is World Mental Health Day.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented diverse challenges to mental health.
- According to a 2020 survey on mental health symptoms during COVID-19, 1 in 5 Canadians are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Just from a business standpoint, lost productivity due to mental health illness cost Canadian businesses an estimated $6 billion annually. And that was before the pandemic. With the recent surge in anxiety and depression, that cost for businesses is expected to rise.
The fear of being infected by an indiscriminate virus and compliance with physical distancing guidelines have given rise to economic, technological, and emotional challenges for organizations and their employees.
The continuing uncertain outcome of the various precautionary measures, regulations, vaccines and on-going waves of infection, present ideal conditions for anxiety to evolve in ways that adversely impact employees’ mental health and their ability to perform.
Anxiety is normal and natural emotion that we all experience from time to time.
It is normal to feel anxious in some situations. For example, when doing a presentation, waiting on the results of a Covid-19 test, or being stuck in traffic during a snowstorm.
According to the Canadian Association for Mental Health, anxiety is also essential for our survival. It is essentially the “Fight or Flight” response; the built-in alarm system that protects us when we perceive a threat or a danger. We either fight or flee from danger to protect ourselves.
Common symptoms include heart pounding; shortness of breath; sweating; shaking; nausea; dizziness; chest pain or tightness; numbness or tingling sensations.
Recovery from these symptoms can be induced through medication or by avoiding the situation that gave rise to anxiety. This may explain why recurring and excessive anxiety is often overlooked as a disorder that requires professional intervention.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it is excessive.
People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns about non-threatening situations or events.
Depending on the duration, frequency and severity of anxiety, a person’s mental health can be severely and deleteriously impacted. Anxiety can lead to depression, sleep disruption and other mental health illnesses.
It is important for employers to understand that the basic human needs for personal safety, stable relationships, job security and significance are top of mind for employees facing economic uncertainty, fearing job losses, and carrying the dual burden of professional and personal responsibilities.
Leaders must therefore champion mental health and speak openly about the need to take care of employees’ mental health. Following through with specific actions builds trust and reassures employees that they will receive the support they need to overcome anxiety and other mental health challenges.
- Destigmatize mental health issues – promote mental health awareness and provide resources to help managers and employees identify signs of anxiety. High performing employees may also be struggling with mental health issues.
- Revise employee benefits plans to include and where necessary expand psychological and psycho-social services.
- Show empathy to employees – through my experience, I have learned that excessive anxiety can be overcome with counselling support and empathetic leadership. I have been able to direct my employees who have been struggling with anxiety, stress, and depression, to the EAP.
…and now, my story…
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety.
As a child, I felt pressured to succeed. Surrounded by parents and persons in authority who with the best intentions reiterated lessons and messages about my good fortune to be born in post-independent Jamaica, I felt pressured to meet their expectations to optimise the opportunities that they didn’t have when they were my age. Failure could not be an option. That’s what I perceived and so I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to succeed.
I worried constantly, unreasonably and many times uncontrollably about the outcome of events in my life. Would I succeed in life if I didn’t pass my exams? Would I get fired if I didn’t deliver the project on time? I was always a high-performer in school getting top marks for assignments, but not performing as well on exams, because of anxiety.
In later years, my parents told me that it was never their intention to pressure me. Many of my peers didn’t respond to these lessons and messages in the way that I did.
It is important to observe the emotional responses, reactions and behaviours of persons who we influence whether in the parent-child, teacher-student, manager-employee relationship.
Throughout my career, I’ve been a high-performer. There have been many days when I have woken up feeling anxious. But I’ve always dressed up, showed up and taken up whatever responsibility I’ve been given.
I’ve never been a pill popper. Cognitive therapy was the way I decided to address anxiety whenever I have needed support.
Anxiety has been my best teacher
I have been fortunate to have access to counselling services through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in my employers’ benefits plans. Three important lessons learned –
- I have learned to accept anxiety as a normal emotion and a valid reaction to some of life’s experiences.
- Instead of resisting the early warning signs of anxiety, I have learned that by calming my emotions through deep breathing, I can return to rational thinking and then choose the best course of action in any given situation.
- I have also learned to shift from thinking about what could happen to focus on the present moment.
See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.
Further reading and resources
Mental Health Commission Canada – Workplace Mental Health
Human Resources Professionals Association – Mental Health in the Workplace