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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Addressing mental health at work

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Going to work can kill you. But accidents in the workplace aren't the only danger. According to recent studies, stress on the job can make you sick - or worse. And healthcare workers certainly aren't immune.
Mental health problems at work are on the rise, says Carolyn Rayfield of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

One prime example is illustrated by a recent study published in the British Medical Association journal called "Occupational and Environmental Medicine," in which 28 nursing assistants had their blood pressure checked every 30 minutes.

When the nursing assistants were working with bosses they liked, their blood pressures dropped. When they worked with bosses they didn't like, their blood pressure surged up to levels that make them vulnerable to coronary heart disease and strokes.

Many workplace problems aren't so easy to check and measure. Carolyn Rayfield, director of business development at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), says mental health problems at work are becoming more common.

That's why the CAMH has established a Workplace Health Consulting Service to teach managers how to recognize and deal with mental health problems.

Its other courses help companies establish effective policies to deal with substance abuse and violence.

"Workplaces are made up of people, and people have mental health problems. The problems could be longstanding or they could be episodic. It could be something they bring in from outside the office, or it could be caused within the office," Rayfield says.

"The workplace has to deal with it because it's going to affect productivity, absenteeism and disability leave. Insurance companies are saying that up to 30% of their claims represent leave due to mental health problems. So it's costing businesses a lot of money."

Sometimes it takes a very public tragedy to make companies understand that waiting until a problem develops is waiting too long. One example is the O.C. Transpo shooting in Ottawa in 1999, in which a former employee shot four colleagues before killing himself.

Pierre Lebrun had been repeatedly teased by his co-workers for stuttering, and some wondered if the problem could have been resolved before tragedy struck.
Mental health and substance abuse problems may affect an employee's ability to multitask or to pay attention to detail. Memory or cognitive abilities may also suffer. Managers should take a non-blaming approach and offer support rather than criticism, according to Carolyn Rayfield of the Workplace Health Consulting Service.

"We take a proactive approach," Rayfield says. "If managers are sensitive to recognising when an employee might be having problems, they can address it sooner and encourage the person to seek help sooner so that it doesn't become a crisis," Rayfield says.

Based in the Ottawa region, Sandvik Steel Canada is one company that has recruited the help of the Toronto-based Workplace Health Consulting Service by inviting consultants to come in and develop policies for substance abuse and violence.

"We want to be forward thinking and to prevent any problem in the future," says Sheldon Marcellus, human resources supervisor. "I think our employees want to feel safe not just with the equipment but also with their peers."

In these cases, managers and union representatives work together with the consultant to develop a policy that will satisfy everyone. Then the managers hold meetings for all the employees to explain how the policy works and how it will be implemented.

With long hours, shift work and understaffing being a common experience for health-care workers, hospitals are amongst the most stressful workplaces around, and Rayfield says many of the skills that managers learn on these courses are not taught in medical or nursing school.

"You may be a nurse or a doctor, but you're also an employee or an employer who has to look after your workers and recognize when there's a problem. Within a health-care environment we can provide better services if we're better ourselves."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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