The Downward Spiral: Mental Health in the Workplace

By Carter Hammett

With initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk helping to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health, c-store owners have an opportunity to assist employees who might be struggling with issues that were previously not up for discussion.

For years Angela Stern dreaded going to her job. At first, work in the c-store was initially pleasant, but then over the years, incidents started accumulating. First, she says, it was verbal abuse from customers, the work, in her words, became “mind-numbing” and she felt constantly micro-managed by her superiors. Perhaps worst of all was the impact of shift work.

“Shift work is stressful. You never know what the next two weeks of your life will be like,” she says. “It’s impossible to plan.”

Unable to find alternative solutions and not knowing where to turn, she eventually began a downward spiral that led to anxiety, depression and chronic stress. She felt she had no choice but to finally quit after five years and seek counselling.

While there’s undoubtedly many benefits and pleasures to be found working in the c-store sector, there’s also a flip side that can be incredibly stressful on both employees and employers alike.

“Working in a stressful and sometimes unsafe environment can have a great impact in terms of stress and anxiety,” says psychologist Dr. Hadley Koltun. “An employee’s sleep and eating cycles can become severely compromised as does their ability to handle stress.”

According to a report by the Workers Health and Safety Centre Federation of Ontario (WHSCFO), c-store workers and others who handle cash are among those at the highest risk for violent encounters, including verbal abuse. Often these employees are working in isolation with little or no contact or support from fellow employees.

Aside from the obvious risk to physical safety, there’s an undeniable impact on mental health as well. The WHSCFO report states that:

“A lack of contact and social support from co-workers can create a sense of helplessness, anxiety, frustration and isolation when problems arise on the job. This anxiety and helplessness can lead to stress. Research has shown that workers with little control over their work and little or no social support from co-workers, supervisors or management are at greatest risk of developing stress. Ongoing stress can lead to colds, flu, viruses, and cold sores as well as psychological problems such as loneliness and depression. Chronic stress can also trigger pre-existing diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, skin diseases and asthma. In severe cases it can lead to cancer.”

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, during any given week, approximately 500,000 Canadian workers will not go to work because of mental health issues. Mental health concerns like anxiety and depression account for 30 per cent of short-term and long-term disability claims and 70 per cent of disability costs. Collectively, employers lose more than six billion dollars annually. When combined with other variables, including health care costs, lost productivity and other factors, the economic burden of mental illness in Canada escalates to $51 billion per year.

Those are pretty serious numbers. So what can be done about this issue? According to a 2018 white paper jointly produced by Employee Assistance Program giant Morneau Shepell and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), mental health can effect any worker at any time. Throughout the workplace lifecycle, employees can move back and forth along a mental health spectrum through seven categories, that include “healthy in work” and “in work struggling.”

Workplace stress has become cyclical – it is a major contributor to mental health issues, which can subsequently impact workplace productivity. Close to three-quarters (70 per cent) of respondents stated that their work experience impacted their mental health, while a higher number (78 per cent) reported mental health as the primary reason for missing work.

Corresponding with those figures is an increased awareness and a shift in understanding how employers respond to mental health issues in the workplace. Not only is the worker impacted but so are colleagues throughout the workplace, as well as family and friends who are indirectly impacted by these issues. While stigma surrounding mental health issues is on the wane and awareness is now on the table and open for discussion, over 60 per cent of Canadian corporations still lack any kind of mental health strategies for their staff

Whether your organization is large or small, solutions can be implemented.

Hadley Koltun thinks that both workers and employers can step up to the plate to start addressing these issues and mutually work toward a healthier workplace.

“C-store workers can form a buddy system. These arrangements have positive social and emotional implications. Having someone you can call can help you manage stress more successfully,” he suggests. On the other hand, employers can implement several strategies including regular check-ins with employees, especially those working in isolation. This breeds a feeling of being cared for the employee, but can also be a source of strategies and problem solving.”

MHCC takes those suggestions a step further by suggesting that employers base their mental health strategies on an occupational health and safety model. This approach uses a management system to reduce the number of work-related injuries and accidents. This approach is gaining traction as an ever-increasing number of employers look for solutions to address mental health issues in their workplaces.

Once formulated, the strategy needs to be constantly evaluated and updated. Measurable outcomes should be established and tracked for continuous improvement. Seek out feedback and annually and review key finding, and, if necessary, make revisions to the program design.

C-store owners who place emphasis on the health and well-being of their employees will foster greater workplace commitment and employee longevity says, Koltun. “Taking steps, including SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely—goals, will help employees feel safe and valued,” he says. “It’ll reduce recidivism and absenteeism while helping staff feel more connected to their workplace.”

It’s something we can all benefit from.

Carter Hammett is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES FOR A HEALTHIER WORK PLACE

Workplace Strategies for Mental Health
www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com

Working Through It (Video Series)
www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/wti/Home.aspx

Think Mental Health
www.thinkmentalhealth.ca

Canadian Mental Health Association
www.cmha.ca

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
www.camh.ca

Mental Health Commission of Canada
www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English

Workplace Mental Health (Ontario Ministry of Labour)
www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/mental_health.php

Workers Health and Safety Centre
www.whsc.on.ca