Supporting employees’ mental health while teleworking will take on new importance as employers increasingly adjust their return-to-office plans to include some level of remote or hybrid work, said Simon Coloumbe, associate professor in the department of industrial relations at Université Laval.

Speaking at Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit, Coloumbe said employers can do this by fostering a supportive workplace environment and helping employees to develop a self-management plan to take control of their mental health.

Being in good mental health isn’t just the absence of mental-health challenges, such as anxiety or depression, he said. It’s also the presence of positive “symptoms” like being satisfied with life, feeling a sense of accomplishment, meaning and personal growth and feeling connected to the community. Research has demonstrated people who have both positive mental health and the absence of challenges have lower absenteeism and better performance at work than their peers, as well as other positive outcomes.

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“What I want to emphasize is that when we think about occupational health and safety that, yes, we focus on preventing and reducing problems, but we also focus on promoting positive mental health as a whole and . . . what makes life worth living for people,” said Coloumbe, who is also the research chair in mental health, self-management and work, a position funded by contributions from Relief and Beneva.

A supportive workplace environment plays a major role in promoting positive mental health and reducing negative effects, something that was only underscored by the past two years. In his own research study during the pandemic, which collected data from more than 2,000 Canadian workers, Coloumbe found higher levels of perceived support from colleagues, supervisors and managers was associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Working from home is associated with more autonomy, better work-life balance and is a protective factor for mental health, according to the study. However, past researchers have found that the positive effects may have limits, with employees who worked remotely more than 2.5 days a week beginning to experience lower quality relationships with their colleagues and managers.

While Coloumbe noted researchers will need to re-examine these findings to see if they still hold post-pandemic, he noted it’s something employers should take into account and ensure remote workers continue to feel they feel supported socially in the workplace.

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He also emphasized the importance of self-management — or daily actions that people take to manage their mental health, such as taking a bath, going for a walk or to the gym or seeing a counsellor. The concept is new in the field of mental health, but has been shown to be related to a reduction in mental-health symptoms, increased sense of hope and increased feelings of well-being.

However, Coloumbe said self-management shouldn’t replace pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy — the two most evidence-based approaches to treating anxiety and depression — but he noted it can be complimentary. It can also help people manage in the interim while they wait to see a mental-health professional.

“Self-management is a low-cost, low-intensity approach that can be beneficial for people and it really centres on the expertise that people have about their own mental health and well-being. [It] can be used as a way to prevent developing mental-health problems in the workplace, as a way to deal with existing problems and as a way to promote one’s overall health and wellness.”

Through interviews with 50 people living with anxiety and mood disorders, Columbe determined self-management techniques fall broadly into five categories: clinical, functional, existential, physical and social. Clinical strategies involve seeking help to reduce symptoms; functional strategies help people manage on a daily basis such as organizing their work environment; existential strategies involve recognizing strengths or focusing on the present moment; physical strategies involve taking care of physical health; and social strategies focus on improving relationships with others.

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Employers can support employees with their self-management plan by de-stigmatizing discussing mental health in the workplace, helping them explore existing resources such as an employee assistance plan or virtual care and offering mindfulness training workshops in the workplace. They can also encourage employees to take regular breaks from their computer or do walking meetings and foster a positive workplace culture.

There are also online resources to help people develop their own self-management plans and organizations that offer self-management workshops, including some on work-life balance, said Coloumbe.

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.