Mental health at work: taboos that die hard
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Mental health at work: taboos that die hard

This text is part of the special World of Work section

While mental health has increasingly been at the heart of conversations in recent years, it still remains subject to taboos in the workplace, experts say.

From 2021 to 2023, 38.6% of participants in the Longitudinal Survey of the Observatory on Health and Well-being at Work (ELOSMET) responded that they were experiencing psychological distress. More specifically, 12.5% ​​of workers said they had symptoms of anxiety, 15.9% said they had symptoms of depression, 25.4% said they were experiencing professional burnout and 22.4% said they consumed psychotropic medications.

According to the director of the Observatory on Health and Well-being at Work (OSMET), Alain Marchand, there is, however, less resistance and taboo around mental health in workplaces today than there is a few years ago. “When I started to study the subject in the 2000s, when we talked about this question, people thought we were interested in madness,” remembers the man who is also a full professor at the School of Industrial Relations of the University of Montreal and scientific director at the Robert-Sauvé Research Institute in Occupational Health and Safety (IRSST).

Promotion of physical activity, yoga, meditation and stress management… Mr. Marchand notes that employers are increasingly concerned about better intervening with workers struggling with mental health challenges. “But, obviously, there is still a lot of emphasis placed on the symptoms rather than on the working conditions which will amplify them,” he explains. When we discover, for example, that the problem is caused by work overload, it is much more difficult to address in professional circles. »

On the organization of work

If some of the mental disorders that employees experience are linked to the private sphere, these same illnesses are often linked to the professional environment, notes Mélanie Dufour-Poirier, associate professor at the School of Industrial Relations at the University of Montreal. And “we always tend to blame the individual for dysfunctions,” she observes.

Thus, too few employers still ask questions about the causes of the psychological fragility of certain people at work, believes the researcher. “In many cases, work is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There are ways of organizing tasks, a management culture, human resources practices that cause the workplace and people to malfunction,” adds the woman who has been studying these issues for around ten years.

According to ELOSMET data, the situation of women and young people is particularly worrying. “In sectors of activity with a strong female predominance, whether we are talking about health or education, the mental health indices are troubling. These two sectors are heavily compromised in terms of mental health at work,” underlines Dufour-Poirier.

But depending on the gender, mental health challenges will not translate in the same way, specifies the researcher. “We currently have psychosocial risk analysis identification tools that exist, but they are generic. However, each workplace has its culture and its own issues, which will manifest themselves in very different ways,” she points out. The Observatory also estimates that young employees at the start of their careers are more likely to experience psychological distress, depression or professional burnout.

Furthermore, OSMET monitors the growth of depressive and anxiety symptoms in men aged 35 to 49 years. In recent years, they have been better able to talk about their problems and seek help to deal with them, notes Mr. Marchand. “Historically, men have been more likely to resort to alcohol abuse, drug abuse, to become violent, aggressive, as a way of reacting or calming their symptoms. The problem is still there, but it is certainly less important than it was compared to the last 20 years,” underlines the professor.

Keep talking about it

There still remains “immense work” of education to be done in professional circles and in society in general, believes Mme Dufour-Poirier. “There is a paradigm of productivity and hyper-performance at work which involves extremely significant human and social costs. When you are seen as something that cannot perform at the same pace as your peers, who do we blame? », asks the researcher.

For his colleague, continuing to address the issue of mental health will help break the taboos that remain, particularly those surrounding autism and neurodivergence. “We can have a construction at the level of the psychology of mental health that distinguishes us from others. That doesn’t make us less efficient at work. We have to get used to these models, talk about them, train people, to break down the last barriers that might remain in terms of stigma. »

This content was produced by the Special Publications team at Duty, relating to marketing. The writing of the Duty did not take part.

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