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Mental Health in the Workplace

What is it?

Mental health depends largely on a person’s relationships with those around them. So it is easy to understand the importance of the workplace, given the amount of time most adults spend there. The workplace is not only an important social environment, but work itself is a critical vehicle for self-fulfillment, involvement, and social recognition. Unfortunately, the workplace can also be a major source of stress, causing both suffering and disappointment—in these cases we talk about work-related psychological and mental health problems. The demands of work, alone or in combination with the stresses of family life and other social pressures, can have effects on individuals ranging from temporary discomfort to mental disorders. In addition, work-related mental health problems have negative repercussions for organizations. These include absenteeism and presenteeism, and their attendant costs, as well as reduced productivity and high staff turnover.

Among the most commonly observed workplace mental health problems, anxiety disorders and depression are the most notable. Some individuals may even be driven to consider suicide. Another problem is burnout, which is not yet recognized in psychiatry as a mental disorder. Burnout is a complex problem arising from the interaction between the individual and his or her work environment and can be compounded by psychosocial risk factors such as stress, overwork, and lack of autonomy, support, recognition, and so forth. Symptoms of burnout include a variety of physical (fatigue, digestive problems, headaches, backaches, insomnia, weight loss, and others), psychological (irritability, loss of self-esteem, anxiety, anger, communication problems, and others), or intellectual (difficulty concentrating, memory loss, poor judgment, and so forth) symptoms. Together, they can leave a person unable to work.

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What causes work-related mental health problems?

A number of factors can lead to work-related mental health problems. Various social factors can be involved. Socioeconomic conditions have an impact on the workplace: economic globalization, for example, can intensify competition between companies, while social values such as performance and individualism can influence both individuals and workplaces. Individual factors have an impact, too. Personal and family difficulties and financial problems can all cast a shadow on working life. Other factors with major effects on mental health have come to light more recently. They relate to the work itself, principally the way work is organized and workplace social relationships. Overwork, lack of recognition, poor or tense workplace relationships (including psychological harassment), lack of input into decisions, and inadequate circulation of information can all threaten the mental health of workers.

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What can be done?

Workplace mental health is a valuable asset that must be supported.

Steps for prevention, steps for action

There are several ways individuals can reduce the impact of work-related stress and prevent mental health problems from developing. Social support networks made up of the person’s spouse, family, friends, or colleagues can make a big difference in reducing workplace stress and helping people deal with it. We also know that healthy lifestyles, including good nutrition and regular exercise, can boost peoples’ ability to deal with stress. Alcohol and drug use, on the other hand, tends to aggravate the problem.

To be effective, prevention of work-related mental health problems still requires reducing sources of stress at work, a process that companies need to plan for and structure. Regular team meetings, participatory mechanisms within the company, staff training, systems for recognizing employee contributions, and harassment prevention are all ways to improve the work atmosphere and help protect individuals from stress.

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When to seek professional help

If you have been consistently showing signs of workplace stress or persistent symptoms of a psychological disorder or burnout leading to difficulty in meeting your professional, social, or family obligations, you should consult your family doctor or a health professional. You can also contact your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if your workplace has one. Most EAPs provide information, needs assessments, and various forms of assistance (individual or group meetings, telephone services, and others) or referrals to specialized resources. Don’t wait until you can no longer function normally before seeking help. A professional can determine with you if you are experiencing a mental disorder or burnout and can suggest a treatment plan adapted to your needs. A physical examination and laboratory tests are sometimes necessary to eliminate the possibility of other illnesses.

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How they are treated

There are proven treatments for the most common work-related mental disorders (anxiety disorders and depression). The sooner you seek help, the better the chances of successful treatment. If you are experiencing a work-related psychological disorder or burnout, you can consult your company’s EAP. To find a therapist you’re comfortable with and whose approach is right for you, ask your family physician or contact a local health and social services center, Ordre des psychologues du Québec (www.ordrepsy.qc.ca) or Association des médecins psychiatres du Québec (www.ampq.org).

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For help or more information

The following are some useful links for getting emergency help or more information:

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