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From awareness to action

the front cover of a crosscurrents magazine- the main image is a vase with bold coloured flowers

Promoting a holistic vision for healthy workplaces

By Astrid Van Den Broek

Winter 2005-06, Vol 9 No 2


Joe stopped saying good morning to you weeks ago. Instead, he now walks into the office, head down, in a fast and angry clip. He doesn’t chat with you like he used to about the weather, last night’s episode of Survivor or anything else. He snaps at you when he is obliged to talk – when he actually shows up to work, that is. He also seems to be drinking more – you’ve seen him more than once coming out of the liquor store in your building after work. He seems to constantly be popping aspirin or have a cold, and he just looks run down.

Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is increasingly common in today’s workplaces because many employees, like our fictional Joe, are feeling the effects of stress. Increasing workloads and time pressures, job uncertainty and long hours that leave little time for family and relaxation are taking their toll mentally and emotionally. In fact, stress, burnout and physical and mental health problems are the main issues limiting productivity in Canada, according to a 2005 survey of Canadian CEOs by FGI World, a global consulting firm that provides employee assistance, disability management and cross-cultural services for employers.

Physical health has long received attention in the workplace. But today, a new, holistic approach to health in the workplace is emerging. “It’s now about wellness, about creating a workforce that is healthy physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially,” says Graham Lowe, president of the Kelowna, B.C.–based Graham Lowe Group, a workplace consulting firm. “It’s a move beyond the traditional occupational health and safety focus on preventing physical injury and illness and reacting when something goes wrong,” says Lowe. “The big pressures on organizations in dealing with mental health are rising disability costs and prescription drug claims to treat a range of mental health issues, whether they’re sleep disorders or anxiety issues.”

So how big of an issue are mental health and substance use in the workplace? “It’s growing as we speak”, says Lowe. “But that’s not to suggest that suddenly we’re faced with a whole host of new mental health problems. It’s the recognition of them that has increased.”

“For years, employers haven’t had to deal with this issue,” says Dr. Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa. She co-authored the 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study for Health Canada, which found that employees are likely to put in unpaid overtime that totals up to approximately five days unpaid overtime per year, and many employees feel they can’t say no when asked to do overtime. “If you didn’t like it, the alternative for years was being unemployed,” says Duxbury. “The attitude has been, ‘You’re lucky to have a job, so don’t complain about your conditions of employment.’”

Fortunately, this attitude is changing, with the help of the Canadian-led Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, which argues the importance of supporting employees to be effective in their jobs in ways that promote, not compromise, their health. The ingredients include leadership that values employees as key assets, supportive supervision at all levels, employee participation, job control, communication, opportunities to learn and a culture that gives priority to work-life balance and individual wellness.

Lowe notes that leading employers are developing such comprehensive, healthy workplace and wellness initiatives. “They’re acknowledging the need to address the root causes of physical and mental health problems, and are making it a priority for business,” says Lowe. “There’s no set formula for doing this, but certainly we’ve seen lots of examples where organizations are saying ‘We need to ensure that our workers can have a life outside of work, that they’re able to have more control over their workloads. We give them more flexibility to do that.’”

Such leading-edge employers include the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ontario, which received the 2005 Canada Awards for Excellence from the National Quality Institute, which recognizes innovation and commitment to a healthy workplace. Dr. Edgardo Perez, Homewood’s CEO, says at the centre of Homewood's success is the organization’s attitude toward health. “We take the approach of creating a sense of family community,” says Perez. “We have beautiful grounds and promote the physical environment as part of that. And we have a spiritual component – the idea that you are connected to something bigger than yourself, partaking in community activities.” Perez emphasizes that the employee initiatives could not happen without support from senior management and the community philosophy that lies at the heart of Homewood.

It’s a philosophy shared by Forward House Community Society, a community health centre in Parksville, British Columbia, which in 2004 won a Psychological Healthy Workplace Award from the British Columbia Psychological Association. “As a mental health agency dedicated to promoting mental wellness to our clients and community, it’s equally important that we be responsible to each other as teammates for a safe and respectful work environment,” says Gerard Klomp, program director of Forward House. “It’s our business to be responsible to individual needs, rather than reactive to systemic initiatives.”

As part of that philosophy, Forward House highlights employee involvement by giving credit to employees through recognition programs and resolving conflict quickly, as well as providing an environment of respect, support and caring for staff and clients. Despite the demanding nature of the agency’s work, staff are retained at a high rate, with one person retiring in 20 years and rates of absenteeism remaining low. Klomp, like Perez, says it is critical that a focus on employee health begin with a top-down commitment.

While initiatives like these are admirable, people like Duxbury call for a more widespread attitude shift that emphasizes psychologically healthy workplaces. “We have to recognize that while it’s possible these days to be in touch with the office 24/7, it has a very negative impact on mental and physical health,” she says. “We have to get control of workloads and understand that productivity and hours are not positively associated. We have to start recognizing the mistakes and costs that occur when we overwork our people.”

But promoting healthy workplaces isn’t just a top-down commitment; it is a shared responsibility for both employers and employees. That approach finds support in the Neighbour@Work program, directed by Dr. Martin Shain, a senior research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “The idea is rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition as the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated yourself,” says Shain. “But it found its way into the law as the ‘neighbour principle,’ which forms the basis of the modern law of negligence. It seemed like a good fit when I was looking for a concept to describe the common duty we owe one another in the workplace to avoid reasonably foreseeable harm to one another’s mental health.”

When employees feel they are being treated unfairly in the workplace, they have higher rates of mental distress, principally anxiety and depression, according to Shain. In the neighbour prototype, the Neighbour@Work is someone who makes every reasonable attempt to understand the legitimate needs, interests and claims of others within their spheres of influence and who tries to accommodate them as best they can. “The Neighbour@Work is the model citizen of the civil, respectful and emotionally healthy workplace,” says Shain, who is currently working on the newest version of the program, Neighbour@Work in Action.

Putting healthy workplaces into action means taking the lead from organizations like Homewood and Forward House. “It’s really at the senior management level and the board level that organizations need to recognize that the health and wellness of their employees is a big risk factor,” says Lowe. “This is not just about doing something nice for employees; this is about risk to the organization and its future. Starting that conversation at that level is a major step forward. As for solutions, there is a whole range. Organizations need to figure out their own pathways.”


Signs of stress in the workplace

“Stress manifests itself differently in different people,” says Graham Lowe, president of the Kelowna, B.C.–based Graham Lowe Group. However, the Chair in Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Laval in Quebec identifies the following common signs of stress in the workplace:


Physical symptoms: cardiovascular disorders, allergies, dermatological disorders, migraines, respiratory disorders, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal disorders

Psychological symptoms: depression, anxiety, boredom, frustration/ irritability, isolation, difficulties concentrating or making decisions, memory lapses

Behavioural symptoms: aggressiveness, alcohol or other drug abuse, eating disorders, conflicts, absenteeism, decreased productivity, decision to leave job, accident proneness.


Visit the Chair’s website for more information about stress in the workplace: http://cgsst.fsa.ulaval.ca/sante/eng


Tips for a psychologically healthy workplace

The American Psychological Association states that any organization, regardless of size, can create and benefit from a psychologically healthy workplace with some or all of the following characteristics:


  • high-quality, flexible benefits plans
  • ongoing programs to monitor and evaluate job satisfaction
  • clear, candid communication
  • policies that consider personal and extended family needs
  • cultural diversity and workplace equity
  • training programs that teach job skills and prepare employees for leadership
  • fair and honest treatment of employees
  • easy access to mental health, substance abuse and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services for employees and families
  • recognition for individual and team performance
  • an attitude of concern for quality, service and ethical behaviour
  • a voice in decision-making for employees
  • priority placed on health and safety
  • a fair employee performance evaluation system that gives feedback and enhances performance
  • programs to deal with and prevent the consequences of workplace stress and conflict