Workplace psychological health on the rise, study finds

Canadian workplaces have become psychologically safer over the past seven years, according to two studies commissioned by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

The first report, conducted by Ipsos, found that in 2016, 71 per cent of employees considered their workplaces psychologically safe and healthy environments. That number was up six percentage points since 2009. Similarly, the number of employees who found their work environments psychologically unsafe fell by ten percentage points to 10 per cent. The remaining respondents didn’t feel strongly either way.

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The national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace has played a significant role in the improvement of workplace mental health, the study suggests. While most employees are unaware of the standard, the Ipsos survey found only five per cent of those working for organizations that had implemented it found their workplaces psychologically unhealthy, compared to 13 per cent of those at companies that hadn’t done so.

It also found employees with depression who worked for a organization that had implemented the standard missed an average of 7.4 days, while those at companies that hadn’t applied it missed an average of 12.5 days.

“A supportive work environment is actually a refuge,” says Mary Ann Baynton, program director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. “It allows people to continue to work, allows people to continue to contribute, even when they’re not well.”

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The second study, conducted by Joti Samra, program lead at the Centre for Psychological Health Sciences at the University of Fredericton, highlighted the changing nature of workplace relationships and the growing perception of employment as a social contract through which employers are responsible for preventing foreseeable mental distress.

“It’s increasingly being seen as a good business strategy by those whose focus is really on organizational success,” says Baynton. “So now, it’s not about being nice. It’s about making a sound business decision.”

Most (69.7 per cent) survey respondents supported legislation that would require all workplaces to follow the standard. Unionized workers were more likely than non-unionized ones to agree (80.6 per cent versus 66.5 per cent).

“This is consistent with the labour movement’s history of creating a collective to stand up for fair wages, safe work environments, and decent working hours — elements that, at their root, are core elements of psychologically healthy and safe work environments,” the report noted.

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When asked whether implementation of the standard should be a requirement for workplaces with more than 100 employees, respondents were much less supportive (41.2 per cent). They were even less likely to agree with regulating the standard only in certain sectors.

Samra’s study also examined the role of mental health in the business landscape. Most respondents (77.4 per cent) thought attitudes towards workplace mental health have improved in the last decade, with 64.7 suggesting employees with mental-health concerns now receive better treatment at work than they did in 2007.

“This suggests that while attitudes are changing, objective behavioural indices of change are lagging somewhat behind,” wrote Samra. “Increasing attention on behavioural expectations in the workplace may be a prudent area of focus.”

The report also found 83.7 per cent of respondents had access to counselling or therapy through their employer-sponsored benefits, a big jump from the 62 per cent who did in 2007. While the amount of coverage provided and the uptake of those benefits varies widely among workplaces, the availability is “promising,” the study noted.

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