What can employers do to create psychologically healthy workplaces?

While employers have made great strides in helping employees manage their stress, they still lag in developing formal psychological health and safety programs that improve well-being in the workplace, according to the 2017 Sanofi Canada health-care survey.

Half (50 per cent) of employee respondents said their employers effectively help them manage stress, but almost a third (31 per cent) said they’ve been under so much stress at work in the past year, they’ve sometimes felt physically ill. On the employer side, only 27 per cent said they have or are in the process of implementing a formal psychological health and safety program, while another 17 per cent plan to do so.

Read: 58% of Canadian workers are stressed on a daily basis: survey

“The work environment is very important,” said Danielle Vidal, director of business development at SSQ Financial Group and one of the survey’s advisory board members. “We talk about stress management programs but we have to shape the environment, which includes training managers to recognize the health risk factors associated with mental illness and proactively refer employees to appropriate supports.”

While some employers embrace management training for psychological health, others refrain from doing so because of concerns about negative reactions or the amount of time involved, noted Vidal. “But without certain management practices in place, employers are not going to see a full return on investment on what they are doing to support mental health,” she said.

The survey found managers themselves can benefit from training because plenty of them are vulnerable to workplace stressors, with 37 per cent reporting they’ve felt overwhelmed in the past year.

Read: Employers advised to discourage staff from taking workcations

Investing in management training pays off on multiple levels, according to Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd. and an advisory board member. “They have a personal awakening about their own mental health. Managers are a hidden vulnerability for employers because they are high performing but also often the most stressed people in the workforce.” 

Besides influencing the ability of employees to manage their stress, the workplace also has a great impact on how much sleep they get, according to the survey. It noted 22 per cent of employees find their workplace hinders their stress management and 16 per cent say the same about their sleep health. Employees who are dissatisfied with their current job are also more likely to find the workplace contributes to their poor stress management (44 per cent) and sleep health (27 per cent).

Read: Employers ‘pay a high price’ for workers’ sleep deficiencies

The report noted many employees find it challenging to cope with stress and manage their sleep because of a lack of work-life balance. When it comes to achieving a work-life balance, the survey’s advisory board said senior leadership needs to set an example through their own habits. For instance, research shows 59 per cent of managers work through lunch. That compares to 48 per cent of employees.

“Distracted eating and skipping breaks can lead to overeating and cravings for unhealthy snacks, not to mention you’re getting less physical activity,” said Dr. Alain Sotto, occupational medical consultant Toronto Transit Commission, director of Medcan Wellness Clinic and an advisory board member.

“This increases the risk of chronic conditions like high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. And if you already have a chronic disease, working while eating is a bad habit that can make the disease worse.”

Read more stories from the 2017 Sanofi Canada health-care survey