Jennifer Newman: Depression, anxiety often symptoms of a negative work environment

Stigma surrounding mental health often keeps employers from addressing the psychological health of their employees, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

The workplace can have a huge impact on our mental health, says workplace psychologist

It's up to managers and supervisors to curb bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace, psychologist Jennifer Newman says. (Getty Images)

Mental illness affects millions of Canadians across the country. And a lot of the time, they can be brought on by work.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and eight per cent of adults will experience a major depression at some point in their lives.

According to workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman, mental illness is tied deeply to a person's environment — and a stressful or negative workplace can lead to depression and anxiety.

She joined host Rick Cluff on CBC's The Early Edition to talk about how these illnesses are often swept under the rug at work.

Rick Cluff: What is psychological safety at work?

Jennifer Newman: The Canadian National Standard on Psychological Safety and Health in the Workplace says an organization is psychologically safe to be in if it actively prevents harm to worker psychological health and promotes psychological well-being.

Psychological health and safety is embedded in the way people interact. It's part of the way working conditions are structured, and importantly, how management leads the organization

Why are organizations still struggling to keep their workforce psychologically safe?

It seems connected to a bias toward seeing psychological injuries, such as anxiety and depression, as largely based on worker personal ill-health, and not linked to the environment in which workers find themselves.

What role does the owner, president, executive director or CEO, play in keeping workers safe?

These folks are a source of vicarious learning — when we watch what others are doing and copy it.

If owners are all about safety, their subordinates tend to be that way too. That's because we tend to copy the behaviour of high status people like the boss.

But, it's not just copying the CEO's values and priorities. It's also about how the owner or executive director treats those who report to him or her.

You mentioned there's a bias toward viewing worker mental health as mostly the worker's personal responsibility, why is this a mistake?

It doesn't account for the enormous role the work environment plays in contributing to one's mental health — both positive and negative.

Workers can become anxious when they have too much to do in too little time or when they are asked to perform tasks they have not been properly trained to do.

It's depressing coming to work and being in a chronic conflict situation, or being bullied by a colleague. It's especially damaging if your supervisor turns a blind eye or mishandles the situation.

If we focus mainly on anxiety and depression injuries as stemming from worker sources, like a difficult childhood, or due to genetics or brain biology, we miss the organization's role in worker ill-health.

We also miss opportunities to prevent psychological injury at work and limit our ability to promote psychological health through working in a healthy environment.
So, there's a link between how leaders at all levels, lead the organization and worker mental wellbeing?

Yes, very much so. If leaders, at all levels, develop the skills to lead and manage well, they'll make organizations psychologically safe.

They'll model behaviour that promotes safety, champion safety policies and procedures, as well as intervene in unsafe or unhealthy situations.

Then, we'll see fewer psychological injuries and, we'll see increases in mental wellbeing and health generally.

We spend around 50 hours a week at work which means a lot of our waking hours are spent on the job.

If leaders can make those hours healthy, workers and their organizations will thrive.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Jennifer Newman: Work has a strong influence on our mental health