‘We’re focusing on the most invisible of injuries’: research project targets mental health at work
Cross-country research led by the University of Ottawa, backed by $1.4M in federal funding, aims to get a better sense of mental health problems on the job — and offer solutions.
“Looking at issues around psychological health and safety particularly at work, the opportunities to take leaves of absence and to encourage return to work,” said Ivy Bourgeault, describing the intent of the research.
Bourgeault, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research research chair in gender, work and health human resources at U of O’s Telfer School of Management, is collecting data on seven professions: accountants, midwives, doctors, nurses, professors, teachers and accountants.
“They’re very privileged workers, they’ve gone for higher education, they have typically higher remuneration so they get higher pay,” said Bourgeault, describing the professions as generally accepted “good jobs.”
“So we often don’t unpack what might be some negative aspects of those jobs or very stressful aspects of those jobs.”
Midwife Anya Marion is excited for research that could offer solutions to a profession she knows first-hand is prone to burnout.
“Midwifery is demanding. We are on call for long hours and we’re providing very specialized care. We’re also under-funded and under-valued. And so all these three things lead to a place where we’re susceptible to burnout,” she said.
In her profession, Marion says there are resources to manage crises, but there’s a vacuum in services before someone reaches that crisis point.
“We are really good at catching midwives when they experience burnout and supporting them through that, but how can we prevent it actually in the beginning?” Marion asked.
Marion left her practice and is now earning a master’s degree in health administration at the University of Ottawa, saying issues in the field pushed her to be an advocate for all midwives by going back to school.
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Bourgeault’s research will draw comparisons across the seven professions, looking at factors like gender, race and age and how they play a role in mental health and experiences.
Concerning leaves of absence, Bourgeault says many professionals feel they can’t take a leave when they need to, especially if they’re a sole provider or own their own practice. When someone is stressed or anxious at work, that causes other issues that can impact clients, patients and colleagues.
The project has partners at 11 universities across the country, and Bourgeault hopes to collect data on thousands of workers through a survey as well as interviews with the workers themselves, but also unions, professional associations, employers and others in the field.
For those who do take leaves, Bourgeault wants to improve their route back in to work by addressing the source of the problem. She says the research will tackle tricky issues such as bullying and harassment, as well as look at prevention.
“We want to encourage return to work, but if you’re telling people they have to return to work to the same toxic environment that led them to leave, then that’s not helpful. So what is it that we need to do to encourage a return to work that actually accommodates what the issues are?” Bourgeault asked.
She says in academia, often people choose not to return to work after a leave, because there’s no accommodation for them if being in front of a class is too stressful or taxing.
“Right now, if you can’t teach, you can’t come back, so people tend to not come back,” she said.
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While the Canadian Mental Health Association says one in five Canadians will experience some form of mental health problem in any given year, Statistics Canada doesn’t collect any direct data on mental health in the workplace.
The agency pointed Global News to the closest information they have — a Canadian Community Health Survey from 2012. It showed the majority of Canadians self-report as having work stress. Forty-two per cent self-reported days that were a bit stressful, while 27 per cent said their days were quite a bit or extremely stressful.
At the end of her five-year project, Bourgeault hopes to be able to offer legacy data, along with tangible solutions and a tool kit of resources.
“It’s not about doing something. It’s about doing something that works,” Bourgeault said.
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