The Silent Killer: Depression and Mental Health Problems in the Workplace
Many people in the workforce suffer from depression and anxiety, but very few ever talk about it. That’s a big, big problem
For Kumari Caruana, everything seemed to go wrong all at once. She was in the midst of a divorce from her husband of eight years – one that left her with a long list of new responsibilities at home and a bundle of anxiety about her future – when she was laid off from her job at Stantec in February. “It’s pretty stressful,” she says. “I’m a single mom so that was really stressful, too. The unknown that followed – how was I going to support myself, my daughter – that was definitely a weight on my mind.”
And while her depression worsened after losing her job, her struggle with it had begun well before then. Unresolved personal problems from her past began to creep back into her life and they made it difficult for her to focus on her work. The job required detailed analysis of construction plans for various oil and gas projects, and she would have to edit her work repeatedly before it was ready to be sent to clients. The extra hours at work only seemed to make things worse, as the more time she put in, the more stressed she became, and the more stressed she became, the more her focus dulled. Eventually, Caruana decided it was time to speak to a counselor one-on-one. “It reached a point for me where I had nowhere else to go,” she says. “Eventually I just had to say, ‘OK, I’m just going to bite the bullet and go in there and do what I need to do.’ ”
Stories like Caruana’s aren’t unique, and they appear to be increasingly common amid widespread layoffs in the energy sector. Between November 2014 and March 2015, the Calgary Counselling Centre, which offers counseling services to sufferers of mental illness and abuse, saw requests for service increase 12 per cent over the same period as the year before, while the number of face-to-face sessions grew 25 per cent. “Every week I have clients come in who either lost their jobs or have partners who have lost their jobs,” says Christine Berry, a counselor at the center. “It’s stressful to think about things you can’t control. And for some people, that’s what’s happening, particularly in this economy.”
But depression and anxiety aren’t confined to people who have lost their jobs or have troubled relationships. Depression abounds – counselors often liken it to the common cold – and its incidence rate doesn’t rise and fall in lockstep with fluctuations in the price of oil. About 70 per cent of Canadians suffering from depression are in the workforce, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and in a 2011 survey by the Conference Board of Canada, 32 per cent of respondents in the workforce said they had past experience with mental health issues while 12 per cent of respondents said they were currently suffering.
While depression is common, its effects are more subtle than those of most common illnesses. People who suffer from depression – or from severe anxiety – can feel a lack of energy, minimal ambition, a diminished appetite and a general feeling of being overwhelmed. And those symptoms carry over into the workplace. “The energy it takes to come into a meeting and pretend that everything is OK when you’re having a hard time concentrating – when your stomach feels like it’s dropping out the bottom, when you feel numb or flat – that takes a toll on you,” Berry says.
It also takes a toll on the company’s balance sheet. Every year in Canada billions of dollars are lost due to absenteeism and lackluster productivity caused by mental health issues, according to the CMHA. A report by the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence found that even a small investment in awareness or early identification programs can reduce productivity losses by as much as 30 per cent. If they go undetected, those losses could amount to almost $400,000 over one year at a company with 1,000 employees, according to the report.
But part of the problem with depression and anxiety is identifying the illness. Few employees feel comfortable admitting they are unequal to the task at hand, and some decide to keep it a secret. Only about half of the people who struggle with depression and anxiety seek help, according to a survey from the University of Toronto. “We have this stigma that says somehow depression is a character flaw – that somehow it’s a sign of weakness,” Berry says. “And it’s not. It’s a state of mental unwellness. It’s got nothing to do with your character. But the stigma suggests that for some reason, if you’re dealing with depression, it’s because you’re just not strong enough.”
While there is little information on mental health in the energy space specifically, it is a high-pressure work environment compared to many other industries. There is a culture of resiliency in the Canadian oil patch, and people tend to pride themselves on their ability to find solutions in tough times. In some cases, Berry says, that could translate into heightened pressure on workers to keep their emotions under control and to themselves. “Chances are there a lot of folks at these oil companies who are going home and weeping because they’re distressed. You can’t really talk about it.”
Solutions to the problem are not necessarily expensive, and many of the larger oil and gas companies like Shell Canada and Enbridge have programs in place to create a work culture that is aware of mental health challenges. Devon Canada, for its part, offers coaching to employees who require it, as well as biometric assessments to monitor the progress of their programs. Karen Hume, a workplace mental health consultant at CMHA, works with various companies to try to identify and reduce depression in the workplace. She says programs that address mental illness are a small investment considering the returns that are seen in improved productivity. “All of these things can be done at low cost, and with low risk to the organization – and the ROI is seen in keeping people working.” A research team at the University of Calgary recently received $1.9 million from the Movember Foundation to investigate ways to identify, prevent and reduce mental illness in male-dominated industries like oil and gas.
Mental health in the workplace is also a legal issue. A voluntary safety standard launched in January 2013 by the Mental Health Commission of Canada has strengthened the legal case for employees to hold their employers liable for psychological damage. And some groups, including the CMHA, are lobbying to make that safety standard mandatory, which would further increase employer liability. “Otherwise, we’re half in and half out,” says Hume.
For anyone who is suffering from depression and anxiety, those efforts could eventually pay dividends. That’s because they might help to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness, something that people who treat it say is central to fighting depression and anxiety in the workplace. Most people who talk to a counselor for their illness see some level of improvement, and Caruana is a perfect example of that. Since she began talking to a counselor, she says she has started to feel more in control of her life again, more confident in addressing problems and more invested with purpose and direction. She even plans to go back to school and change careers, even though the job market remains tight. There are still bad days, she says, but they’re now outnumbered by the good ones. “I’m definitely having a lot more of those.”
Depression isn’t a battle that needs to be fought one-on-one. In Alberta, there’s a variety of resources that those struggling with it can tap.
Organization: Alberta Health Services
Description: Offers treatment services for mental illness through various offices, facilities and funded services. Services include a toll-free helpline, detoxification, outpatient counseling, opioid dependency programs and residential treatment. Counselors are trained for workplace mental illness specifically.
Organization: Calgary Counselling Centre
Description: Offers counseling services for all types of emotional stress, including depression and anxiety, addiction, parental struggles, domestic abuse, anger, bereavement etc. Counseling is available to couples, families, adolescents and individuals.
Organization: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – Family and Community Support Services (FCSS)
Description: Offers regular counseling services to anyone suffering from forms of emotional stress, including depression and anxiety, loss, family violence and self-esteem issues.
Organization: Cornerstone Counselling Centre
Description: Offers counseling services for individuals, families, adolescents or couples. Services cover all types of emotional stress counseling, including depression and anxiety, anger, men’s issues, women’s issues, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.
Free Online Tools:
Program: E-Course on Stress Management in the Workplace
Organization: Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region
Description: An online program designed for anyone and everyone in the workplace that addresses mental health
Program: Guarding Minds at Work
Organization: Great West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace
Description: Online program that provides a comprehensive set of resources to protect and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace
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