Social connection can build or erode mental health, resilience

Between 2017 and 2019, the number of individuals reporting mental-health issues has risen by seven per cent, according to Dr. Sam Mikail, psychologist and senior mental-health consultant at Sun Life.

“We haven’t seen an improvement,” he said during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2019 Toronto Mental Health Summit on Nov. 29. “If anything, we’ve seen a deterioration in the nature of people’s mental health in the workplace.”

When options such as workers’ compensation were first introduced, the health and safety initiatives and policies were intended to address physical injury and the impact of physical work, said Dr. Mikail. Today, the nature of work has changed from an emphasis on the physical to the psychological.

Read: 60% of Canadians with mental-health concerns not using workplace support tools

According to Sun Life’s latest bi-annual barometer survey, which looked at Canadians’ psychological and physical well-being, two-thirds of millennials said they’ve experienced a mental-health challenge. However, 61 per cent of these individuals haven’t taken advantage of their workplace benefits and 39 per cent haven’t sought any sort of help at all.

The data isn’t much different when applied to the entire population, said Dr. Mikail, highlighting that 60 per cent of all respondents said they’re facing some sort of mental-health challenge and also aren’t using their workplace benefits, which suggests barriers are still preventing people from accessing the available resources.

Stigma is a crucial part of trying to move the needle with respect to improving mental health, noted Dr. Mikail. “Our use of language can often impact and perpetuate mental-health stigma. For someone experiencing a mental-health disorder, everyday ways in which we talk about experiences can actually make a fairly significant difference.”

Read: Mental-health stigma still entrenched in workplace: study

The introduction of technology and agile workplaces are intended to make the workplace more flexible, said Dr. Mikail, because they give people more choice in terms of how and when they work. However, while these options increase efficiency and reduce costs for organizations, he noted they’re also fairly significant factors in eroding social connection.

Social connection is one of those fundamental factors that can either build mental health and resilience or erode it dramatically, he added. “What we know from psychological evidence is that social isolation . . . has a tremendous impact that tends to be quite lasting.”

As well, profit pressure within both the corporate and public sectors contributes to hiring managers who ensure good physical restraint and economic oversight, but may not have the right soft skills, said Dr. Mikail. The ability to recognize when someone is struggling — or being able to make the distinction between a performance and mental-health issue — is significant.

Read: Mindful benefits plan design should consider mental health

Work is essential to psychological well-being because it gives people a sense of meaning, identity and structure, he said, and having a psychologically healthy workplace is critical to mental health.

As well, it’s important to look at designing work that taps into several skillsets and talents, he noted. “When people don’t have variety in their work, there’s a sense of complacency, disconnection and an erosion of creativity — all things, from a mental-health perspective, that are critical in terms of bolstering a sense of presence and overall engagement.”

Further, it’s vital to design work that gives employees the opportunity to make decisions where possible, said Dr. Mikail, while not allowing a sense of choice can be confining and can eradicate people’s sense of commitment, energy and motivation.

Emerging innovative technologies such as virtual independent medical examinations, virtual therapy and pharmacogenetics are making mental health more accessible, he added. Moreover, for people struggling with issues around stigma, these technologies allow access to services within an environment that feels more private.

Read: Assessing the impact of online therapy as digital health tools proliferate

“When things do break down, when organizations are faced with someone who is struggling with a mental-health issue, it’s important to be attentive to ensuring that access to appropriate assessments and services is available, so that they can get off on the right path immediately and not lose time. One of the things we know is that the longer symptoms are in place, the more difficult it becomes to try and change that.”

Read more coverage of the 2019 Toronto Mental Health Summit.