Depression in the Workplace

Printable Resources

Workplace Training

MDSC has been supporting workplaces across the country for many years by providing training and educational resources. We know employers prioritize workplace wellness, and to support these efforts we have developed the following workplace training modules for employers, HR teams, managers and supervisors to use in your workplaces.

Workplace Mental Health Resource Book

Living with mental illness means not only making the effort to manage it personally, but finding ways to cope with how it can affect those who are in our lives. Some do not find the support they seek in the workplace and in certain cases, may even stop working due to the impact of stigma.

This Workplace section aims to provide both employees and employers with the information and guidance they need to promote and support positive Mental Health in the Workplace.

This was created based on the Mood Disorders Society of Canada’s “Workplace Mental Health” booklet. It has been broken down into eight sections:

  • Section 1: Health and Wellness in the Workplace
  • Section 2: Developing a Workplace Policy
  • Section 3: Roles & Responsibilities in Developing a Workplace Policy
  • Section 4: Identifying Problem Areas
  • Section 5: Workplace Stress
  • Section 6: The Workplace Stress Audit
  • Section 7: Maintaining Work-Life Balance
  • Section 8: Promoting Wellness in the Workplace

Section 1: Health & Wellness in the Workplace

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is a term that describes how we feel, perceive, think, communicate and understand within the context of our community. Mental health refers to either a level of cognitive or emotional well-being or an absence of a mental disorder. Mental Health also means the ability to enjoy life’s activities while maintaining a level of balance in the face of life’s ups and downs.

It was previously stated that there was no one “official” definition of mental health. Cultural differences, subjective assessments, and competing professional theories all affect how “mental health” is defined. However, the World Health Organization has now defined mental health as “a feeling of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. Mental health is an expression of our emotions and signifies a successful adaptation to a variety of situational demands allowing us to maintain our full potential and participate successfully in everyday life.

Mental health (or well-being) is an ideal we all strive for. It is a balance of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. Caring relationships, a place to call home, a supportive community, and work and leisure all contribute to mental health.

However, no one’s life is perfect, so mental health is also about learning the coping skills to deal with life’s ups and downs the best we can.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is a serious disturbance in thoughts, feelings and perceptions that is severe enough to affect day-to-day functioning. Some names for mental illness include:

Schizophrenia: Seeing, smelling or hearing things that aren’t there – or holding firm beliefs that makes no sense to anyone else but you.

Depression: Intense feelings of sadness and worthlessness – so bad that you have lost interest in life.

Bi-polar Disorder: Cycles of feeling intensely happy and invincible followed by depression.

Anxiety Disorders: Panic attacks, phobias, obsessions or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eating Disorders: Anorexia (not eating), or bulimia (eating too much and then vomiting).

Borderline Personality Disorder: Severe difficulty with relationships, placing yourself in danger, makes decisions that turn out to be very bad for you.

Problem Gambling: Is an urge to gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop. Problem gambling often is defined by whether harm is experienced by the gambler or others, rather than by the gambler’s behaviour.

Addiction: When an individual persists in use of alcohol or other drugs despite severe life problems related to continued use. Some substances create a physical craving. Compulsive and repetitive use may result in tolerance to the effect of the drug and withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or stopped. This, along with substance abuse are considered substance use disorders.

Living with a mental illness means not only making efforts to manage it, but coping with the ways in which it can affect your life and those in it. If you’re faced with a mental health concern, or if you are the loved one of someone who is, there are things you can do to help make way for a better life.

Facts about Mental Illness in the Workplace

  • Percentage of Canadian employers who consider the continuous rise in employees’ mental health claims to be a top concern: 56%.
  • Percentage of short term disability claims related to mental illness in Canada: 75%. 2007 figures report 72%.
  • Percentage of long term disability claims related to mental illness in Canada: 79%. 2007 figures report 82%.
  • Percentage increase in long term disability costs: 27%.
  • Percentage of employers who track disability claims costs as a percentage of payroll: 28%.
  • Percentage of employers who have plans to address mental health and mental illness in the workplace: 31%.
  • Fastest growing category of disability costs to Canadian employers: Depression.
  • Annual losses to the Canadian economy due to mental illness in the workplace: $33 billion.
  • Amount employer will save, per employee per year, for those who get treatment: From $5000 – $10,000 in average wage replacement, sick leave and prescription drug costs.
  • Percentage of people with serious mental illness who are unemployed: 70 – 90%.
  • Percentage of people with serious mental illness who want to work: 80%.
  • Percentage of Canadian organizations that have no structured process for supervisors to support employees’ return to work after any illness or disability: 64%.
  • Percentage of organizations that have no process to address significant changes in employee productivity or behaviour: 84%.
  • Percentage of organizations that identify addressing the stigma associated with mental illness as a priority: 20%.
  • Level at which Canadians with depression report that they function at work: 62% of capacity.
  • Percentage of Canadians with depression who have had to leave their work for short-term, long-term disability or permanently: 70%.
  • Percentage of Canadians who have quit a job because of depression: 35%, with 25% reporting they lost a job because of depression.
  • Percentage of Canadians who are concerned that they will lose their job because of their depression: 78%.
  • Proportion of Canadian employees who report they work in environments that are not psychologically safe or healthy: 3 in 10.
  • Percentage increase in court awarded settlements due to mental injury in Canadian workplaces over the last 5 years: 700%.

Return to Top


Section 2: Developing a Workplace Policy

Well-being in the Workplace

Creating a workplace mental health and wellness program is centred on the development of a comprehensive Workplace Mental Health Policy. This policy will serve as the central anchor point from which all activities will be generated for and from.

In developing the organizations policies, it is crucial to create a knowledgeable and committed Policy Development Committee, made up of company-wide representation, to ensure the policies are informed by input from all stakeholders. This process will also generate higher buy in for all sectors.

Policy Statement

The Policy Statement is your company position on eliminating barriers to a healthy workplace. It is the statement of your organizations commitment to protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of its management and employees. It should also address the need to recognize and support employee wellbeing through ensuring that managers and staff work collaboratively in eliminating of unhealthy stressors and like workplace hazards.

Goals of the Policy

Decide upon five or six straightforward goals of the Policy. What is it that the company wants to achieve by the development of the workplace mental health strategies? List these goals clearly and concisely so that there is no ambiguity in what you are working towards. As an example;

  • To provide assistance to those who experience work related stress.
  • To promote healthy work/ life balance
  • To promote a culturally safe environment

Objectives of the Policy

Decide upon the objectives needed to reach your goals. These objectives will be your company operating principals. Clarity and detail is imperative to ensuring successful policy implementation. When necessary, include timelines and parameters. As an example;

  • To develop strategies that will ensure mental health is equally valued to physical health.
  • To create a working environment where employees and managers work collaboratively in identifying opportunities to increase employee wellbeing.
  • To increase awareness of mental health in all management and employees.
  • To alter our communications procedures to protect home/work balance by reducing blackberry/ email messaging in the evenings to a point of only in the event of emergency within 90 days unless in event of an emergency.

Benefits of Following the Policy

The workplace policy statement should include a clear understanding of the benefits which all parties will reap by adhering to the new standards. All management and staff must understand that implementing new polices is an operational and culture shift and will involve transferring of benefits accordingly. Let us examine a case scenario; let’s imagine that in the past 5 years, company X has had a practice of issuing all front office managers (5) a blackberry and has had a very high rate of after hour emails travelling to and from these managers. Although it may seem to be a common operational practice, which some may state saves company money, take a look at both the employee viewpoint of being contacted continuously at home, how this may negatively affect the employees’ morale, how this affects the managers home life, how this may disrupt the employees mental rest from the stresses of the workplace. Now let’s examine if over the past 2 years if any managers have left their positions due to stress? If so, are they on disability leave? What is the cost of hiring replacements? Lost productivity? Loss of employee commitment and dedication? Training expenditures?  Loss of knowledge? Community contacts? Loss of community good will? Etc. When we look at the real benefits in eliminating stressors on employees, while there may or may not be an immediate cost, the benefits will invariably save money over a very short time period.

Detail the benefits associated with the implementation of the company workplace policies.  Share will all employees and staff why it is crucial for everyone to play a role in the culture shift towards valuing each other’s mental health as importantly as we do physical health. Examples are;

  • Staff and Management will have awareness of stress-related issues and will be able to more effectively manage their wellness.
  • Earlier notification of wellbeing issues leading to improved and speedier interventions.
  • Improved working environment and culture for employees to be able to share views.
  • Greater knowledge and skills of managers for supporting employee needs.
  • The elimination of stigma and discrimination.

Definition of Stress

It is important for the policies to define what constitutes workplace stress. The Policy Development Committee will need to define stress in their own terms such as ‘the negative and potentially harmful reaction management, staff, and/or volunteers have to excessive pressures or other types of unreasonable demand’. It is important to explain how stress is different from pressure which can be assigned to temporary workplace needs, stress occurs when too much pressure and/or too many demands come in to play. Stress can and often does lead to both mental and physical illness. The potential for this illness also raises the level of stress in the employee. It should also be understood that stressors do not end the moment one walks out of the workplace each day, as well, stress occurring outside the workplace adds to the accumulated stress load which builds up in a person and can acerbate the level of illness risk.

Legal Notice

As an employer, it is very important to maintain openness and transparency with your staff regarding health and wellness. As such, it is very appropriate to detail the provisions of applicable health and safety regulations. Post within your policies the appropriate corresponding legislation referring to health and safety. Express your position on the employers’ duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and describe their duty to notify management of any hazards.  This is where the company wants to clearly notify all management and staff that no harm, prejudice, or punishment will come to any employee or management who comes forward with mental health issues. Owners, management and employees are required to comply with all legal requirements.

Moving the Policy Forward

This section clearly indicates the steps needed to be taken by each stakeholder in moving the objectives of the workplace mental health to action. The roles of all stakeholders should be clearly specified in implementing all areas of the strategy.

Key areas where practical steps that need to be detailed that will be taken to support and drive forward the objectives towards the goals are;

  • Workplace risk assessment
  • Training of staff
  • Stress awareness activities and training
  • Communication and resources
  • Management training, resources and support
  • Healthy lifestyles and managing stress training
  • Monitoring staff and management wellbeing
  • Evaluation and corrective measures

Return to Top

Section 3: Roles & Responsibilities in Developing a Workplace Policy

All organization stakeholders must have clear written roles and responsibilities to follow during and after workplace policy implementation. Stakeholders can be broken up in to such areas as: Managers and Employees.


  • Workplace risk assessment – This will entail training management in identifying the signs of stress and other mental health hazards in the workplace. Management will need to be able to spot the first signs of stress factors and will need to be comfortable in speaking directly to staff about stress-related issues. A key priority here is to ensure the positive development of a trustful relationship to ensue the staff member is completely satisfied to be open and honest. When stressful situations are identified, management must move swiftly with the staff to create action plans which are suitable to all parties to immediately reduce and work towards eliminating the stress hazard involved.
  • Communication and resources – Communications is crucial to the success of the workplace mental health plan. Management MUST be aware of the communication skills needed to talk with the staff regarding mental health issues and in particular workplace stress. Staff need to feel completely safe in opening up with managers and must not feel that they will be looked down upon or blamed when speaking about mental health issues. Team meetings should be held regularly with open discussions being encouraged and supported. Resources should be made available to all staff, information booklets, support documents, contact numbers and outside contact information for community services should be readily available. Posters should be posted indicating the importance of mental health as well as the policies should be both distributed to all employees as well as posted for access by everyone.
  • Monitoring levels of work – Managers must be knowledgeable about safe workloads and must recognize when staff have unhealthy levels of pressure. Managers should monitor workloads and take corrective action if hazards are noticed. These situations should continue to be monitored and should also be brought to the team meetings for suggestions if appropriate.
  • Stress-related absences – Owners and Managers must be cognisant of any indications of increased absence of staff members as well as fellow management. Missing time is a precursor to more serious issues and absence patterns should be noted and watched. A key issue to also watch is transferred workloads on present employees when their co-workers are absent. If patterns are noticed, return to work interviews should be undertaken with potential issue identification leading to action oriented activities. If stress-related health risks are identified, workers should be encouraged to use employment assistance programs which may include lightened workloads, time off, counselling and other assistance as required.
  • Employee training – Staff must be offered on the job training to handle the pressure of their responsibilities in a safe and healthy manner. Staff must fully understand their role. One on one training can ensure job duties are completely understood and will reduce stressful work environments. New hires should be encouraged to reach out if in doubt, and should be monitored to ensure they fully understand their tasks.
  • Maintaining reasonable hours – Management is responsible for ensuring staff and fellow management do not work excessive hours and take their full entitlement to holidays. Management must be fully aware of the importance of home/work separation and should implement firm policies on email and other communications after regular business hours. The convenience of portable email or cell phone does not mean the employee is at work more than regular working hours each day and it is imperative that this away time is recognized by Management as being a key component to maintaining a healthy workplace. Any excessive violation of this should be recognized as a hazard and acted upon without delay.
  • Staff support – Management should be able to offer staff support in maintaining a stress free life whenever possible. The organization leaders must realize that outside events do take place in all families and incidences such as accidents, deaths, separations, etc. are very vulnerable times in people’s lives. Support needs to be readily available and employment assistance programs should be offered when needed, that is their purpose.
  • Managerial support – Managers need adequate training, strong support and adequate time to spend with staff to maintain a healthy work environment. Managers need detailed training to ensure the workplace mental health policies are properly implemented. Whenever possible, outside professional trainers should be brought in to adequately train management in mental health and wellbeing. Managers should maintain constant awareness of other developing policies or laws which may have an influence on their workplaces in such areas as compassionate leaves, maternity/ paternity leaves, etc.


  • Employee support – Employees must look after themselves both in the workplace as well as outside. Staff need to ensure they play their part in reducing stressful conditions and must report any stress and/or unhealthy workplace situations. Cooperating with management in reducing unhealthy work environments includes ensuring they take their allotted breaks, lunches, days off and holidays as entitled. Open communication is extremely important.
  • Internal relations – Co-workers and supervisors need to all be treated and communicated to with respect at all times. Positive attitudes and respectful communications create healthy environments. In no instance is it acceptable to stigmatize, harass or discriminate against any person. If any employee witnesses such actions it is their duty to report this to management immediately.


  • The representative union must be consulted and present during the development of workplace policies. Their buy-in and agreement to any workplace changes will hinge on meaningful engagement and participation. In particular, their input on reducing workplace stressors will add pertinent value to the process and will allow for their assistance in implementing all policies and procedures.

For Further Information

The Mood Disorders Society of Canada (MDSC) is a national, not for profit, consumer driven, voluntary health charity committed to developing and sharing resources which lead to better health and well-being of Canadians. The MDSC understands that the workplace is an area where most Canadians spend a large part of their lives. To this end, workplaces have a significant role to play in maintaining the health of their employees.

As a service to employers, the MDSC will be presenting a series of mental health in the workplace topics which we hope will assist employers in assessing their current operations and assist them in understanding the parameters of creating a plan for implementing or improving workplace mental health resources, supports and training for both management and staff. The MDSC has experienced leaders who can assist companies and organizations assess, develop and implement mental health policies, programs and supports at a reasonable cost.   Contact us to discuss further how we may be able to assist your company become a leader in providing a safe work environment.

For further information on mental health in the workplace, or to inquire about getting skilled help to assist in your workplace needs, contact MDSC.


Return to Top


Section 4: Identifying Problem Areas


The impact of mental health problems in the workplace has serious consequences for the worker and the company. Annual losses to the Canadian economy due to mental illness in the workplace are now estimated at $51 billion. Employee job performance, rates of illness, absenteeism, accidents and staff turnover are all affected by the mental health of employees. Common mental health problems affect an estimated one in five or 20% of the working population at any given time.

Do Certain Jobs Present Higher Risks?

A review conducted by British Occupational Health Research Foundation of the international literature and secondary analysis of the ONS Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (Stansfield et al, 2003) shows that certain occupations are at greater risk of mental ill health than others. Using Standard Occupational Classifications (SOC), major groups at risk include clerical, secretarial, administrative support workers, machine operators, social workers, industrial workers, sales people and certain professional groups.

British national surveys suggest that teachers, nurses, social workers, probation officers, police officers, the armed forces and medical practitioners have a higher incidence of work-related mental illness.

Using combined data from the 1993 and 2000 surveys, sub-major SOCs with a higher risk included managers and administrators (especially general managers in government and large organizations), teaching professionals, other associate professionals, clerical and secretarial, and other sales and personal services occupations. Occupations with a lower prevalence than the overall prevalence included craft and related occupations, science and engineering professionals, personal services professionals and interestingly – given the international literature – plant and machine operatives.

The foundation goes on to suggest the reasons for high rates of mental disorder in particular occupations are associated with high levels of job demand, combined with lack of long-term security and particularly high emotional demands in working with people. Conversely, low rates of mental disorder may be accounted for by high levels of skill discretion, good general working conditions and the social desirability of not reporting psychological symptoms.

According to the World Health Organization research on Mental Health and Work: Impact, issues and good practices; employers have tended to take the view that work and/or the workplace are not causation factors in mental health problems. However, whatever the causal factors, the prevalence of mental health problems in employees makes mental health a pressing issue in its own right. Although, effective mental health services are multidimensional, the workplace is an appropriate environment in which to educate individuals about, and raise their awareness of, mental health problems.

Mental Health Issues and Workplace Absence

There is a strong association between mental health problems and sickness absence. Half of those employees with psychological disorders are reported to have taken time off work in the previous year, compared with a quarter of all employees (Stansfield et al, 2003). Other reviews have demonstrated similar patterns of excess sickness absence, with depression being the major reason cited (Carter, 1999).

Long-term absence, particularly stress related, appears to have worsened in recent years (Henderson et al, 2005). The percentage of individuals experiencing spells of long term (21 + days) absence has increased from 5% in 2001 to 5.7% in 2003, i.e. 44% of all days lost. While the decision of employees to take time off work involves complex social and economic factors, as well as personal feelings of wellness or illness, low levels of time off sick are also not necessarily a good thing for an individual employee. Employee reluctance to admit to mental health problems for fear of stigma can lead to an employee waiting until the workplace relationship has become too difficult to ask for help, thus leading to more serious problems and the possibility of permanent job loss (Thomas et al, 2003).

Mental health problems may be triggered by work, but they may also be triggered by life events outside of the workplace. Duration and severity of mental health problems are often determined by a complex array of factors other than the immediate trigger. To effectively address the issues, there is a need to look at the individual experiencing mental health problems, the compounding characteristics of the workplace, and the remedies needed to improve the employee’s well-being.

Mental Well-Being in the Workplace

The workplace is one of the predominant environments that affect our well-being. There is a growing understanding of how work promotes or hinders mental wellness and oppositely, mental illness. The impact of employment on personal growth, identity, improved self-esteem and social network development is obvious and most mental health professionals agree that the workplace environment can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental well-being.

Consequences of Mental Health Problems in the Workplace

According to Stress at Work: A Guide for Employers: (UK Health & Safety Executive. Crown, 1995); the consequences of mental health problems in the workplace can be summarized as follows:

  • increase in overall sickness absence, particularly frequent short periods of absence
  • poor health (depression, stress, burnout)
  • physical conditions (high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, sleeping disorders, skin rashes, headache, neck- and backache, low resistance to infections)
Work performance
  • reduction in productivity and output
  • increase in error rates
  • increased amount of accidents
  • poor decision-making
  • deterioration in planning and control of work
Staff attitude and behaviour
  • loss of motivation and commitment
  • burnout
  • staff working increasingly long hours but for diminishing returns
  • poor timekeeping
  • labour turnover (particularly expensive for companies at top levels of management)
Relationships at work
  • tension and conflicts between colleagues
  • poor relationships with clients
  • increase in disciplinary problems

Maintaining a healthy and safe workplace includes incorporating and addressing all the above risk factors into the Workplace Mental Health Plan.

Barriers Leading to Stress in the Workplace

People with mental health issues face numerous barriers in obtaining equal opportunities, supports and inclusion due to attitudinal barriers which cause social exclusion. For people with mental illness, social, (including the workplace), exclusion is often the most difficult barrier which exists. This exclusion is usually associated with feelings of shame, fear and rejection. It is clear that mental illness often leads to social exclusion and stigmatization both towards the person who has mental illness and their families. This greatly increases workplace stress.

It is our intention to use these workplace supports and information documents to guide employers and employees in raising awareness of the benefits of good mental health practices and assist in the implementation of a mental health plan to maintain a safe and healthy working environment.

Stressful Characteristics of Work

Condition Defining Hazard

Work Characteristics
(demands, control and support)
Organizational function and culture
  • Poor task environment and lack of definition of objective
  • Poor problem-solving environment
  • Poor development environment
  • Poor communication
  • Non-supportive culture
Role in organization
  • Role ambiguity
  • Role conflict
  • High responsibility for people
Career development
  • Career uncertainty
  • Career stagnation
  • Poor status or status incongruity
  • Poor pay
  • Job insecurity and redundancy
  • Low social value to work
Decision latitude/control
  • Low participation in decision-making
  • Lack of control over work
  • Little decision-making in work
Interpersonal relationships at work
  • Social or physical isolation
  • Poor relationships with supervisors
  • Interpersonal conflict and violence
  • Lack of social or practical support at home
  • Dual career problems
Task design
  • Ill-defined work
  • High uncertainty in work
  • Lack of variety of short work cycles
  • Fragmented or meaningless work
  • Underutilization of skill
  • Continual exposure of client/customer
Workload/work pace
  • Lack of control over pacing
Quantities and quality
  • Work overload or under load
  • High levels of pacing or time pressure
Work schedule
  • Shift working
  • Inflexible work schedule
  • Unpredictable working hours
  • Long or unsociable working hours
Consensus from literature outlining nine different characteristics of jobs, work environment and organization which are hazardous. Source: HSE Contract Research Report No. 61/1993. Cox T. Stress Research and Stress Management: Putting Theory to Work.

Return to Top


Section 5: Workplace Stress

What is Stress?

Harmful physical and emotional response that occurs when there is a poor match between job demands and the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Stress is the emotional and physical strain caused by our response to pressure from the outside world. Common stress reactions include tension, irritability, inability to concentrate, and a variety of physical symptoms that include headache and a fast heartbeat.

It’s almost impossible to live without some stress. And most of us wouldn’t want to, because it gives life some spice and excitement. But if stress gets out of control, it may harm your health, your relationships, and your enjoyment of life.

Prevalence of Stress

We are now living in a busy world where we have to deal with pressure situations in every facet of our lives. In our everyday activities, we face situations that have the potential to upset our well-being.

Stress is how our body responses to what we believe to be a challenge. This can be a positive response and can in fact help motivate us to peak performance. However, there are also times when we experience the negative effects of stress when we believe the demands of work we are doing are more than we can manage.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, two-thirds of office visits to family doctors are for stress-related symptoms.

Nearly 30 per cent of Canadians are feeling more work-related stress now than last year, according to the 2010 Desjardins Financial Security National Health Survey. The survey included 1,769 interviews conducted with Canadian workers.

When prompted, survey participants said that their top stress inducers were an insufficient salary (30 per cent), work overload (27 per cent), a lack of recognition (22 per cent) and a negative work environment (22 per cent). Only 14 per cent named work-life imbalance as a source of stress. On the positive side, participants are making changes to manage the pressure including: relaxing their personal need for perfection; adopting new work styles, and; becoming more realistic about meeting urgent deadlines.

  • Twenty five per cent of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives (Northwestern National Life).
  • Three quarters of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago (Princeton Survey Research Associates).
  • Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor—more so than even financial problems or family problems (St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co).

Signs of Stress

Stress can present itself in many ways.

Physical signs and symptoms of stress

  • Muscle tension
  • Teeth grinding
  • Accidents
  • Headaches
  • Restless sleeps
  • Stomach and digestive problems
  • Skin rashes
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Increased use of alcohol, or cigarettes
  • Over and under eating
  • Dry mouth
  • A pounding heart
  • Frequent urination
  • Sweating palms

Emotional signs and symptoms of stress

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings

Social signs and symptoms of stress

  • Lashing out
  • Cynicism of others
  • Social withdrawal
  • Intolerance for others
  • Avoidance of social activities

Mental signs and symptoms of stress

  • Poor concentration
  • Racing thoughts
  • Low productivity
  • Lack of fulfillment
  • Inability to “turn work mind off” at home
  • Forgetfulness
  • Feeling excessively tired

If you are experiencing any of these signs of stress for prolonged periods of time it may be an indicator that you have a high level of stress, and you should take steps to reduce and eliminate the stressors and causes.

How to Prevent Job-Related Stress

When stress on the job is interfering with your ability to perform, take care of yourself, or manage your personal life, it’s time to take steps to change things. Start by looking closely at your physical and emotional health. When your physical and emotional health are prioritized and your need are addressed, you’re stronger and more resilient to stress. The healthier you feel, the more equipped you will be to manage work stress.

While some stress is normal in life, excessive stress interferes with your physical and emotional health, so it’s important to find ways to keep it under control. This change does not necessarily mean a total lifestyle switch. Even small things can improve your mood, add energy, and make you feel like you’re healthier and happier. Take one change at a time, and as you make more positive lifestyle choices, you’ll soon notice a greatly reduced stress level, both at home at work.

Below are some easy suggestions that you can try to create a less stressful environment at work:

  • Avoid too much caffeine, soda pop, and junk. Better yet, stop using them.
  • Don’t procrastinate. You’ll be happy you got it done.
  • Encourage positive self-talk.
  • Don’t get caught up in gossip or negative thinking.
  • Use the stairs for exercise.
  • Avoid nicotine. Smoking when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed may seem calming, but nicotine is a powerful stimulant – leading to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety.
  • Do one thing at a time.
  • Eat nourishing food that keeps you going and makes you feel good. Drink water.
  • Change your attitudes. Think of stressful situations as a challenge to your creative thinking.
  • Share work problems. If you encounter an unusually challenging work problem, talk with coworkers. It will help to talk through issues. Sometimes just by talking through a problem, you will find the answer.
  • Know your limits: Be realistic about what you can accomplish and do not put unrealistic workloads and timelines on yourself.
  • Say no when you can’t.
  • Wear comfortable clothes.
  • Find humour. Don’t take everything too seriously; find a way to break through with laughter. Share a joke or funny story.
  • Make “TO DO” lists. List everything you need to do in order of priority.
  • Schedule time for yourself. Stick to the schedule!
  • Take a relaxation break. Eat lunch away from your desk or work area. Try to go home on time.
  • Leave earlier from home in the morning. Running late and hurrying adds stress.
  • Take real weekends and vacations. Avoid thinking about work.
  • Turn off your blackberries and emails after a certain time. The email will wait till tomorrow.
  • Leave your cell phones and emails out of the restaurants. Enjoy your meals without stress.
  • Organize your files and work space so that things can be found quickly.
  • Delegate tasks.
  • Don’t over-commit yourself. Avoid scheduling things back-to-back or trying to fit too much into one day.
  • Stay positive.

Return to Top


Section 6: The Workplace Stress Audit

The Stress Audit

As identified previously in this series, workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional response that occurs when there is a poor match between job demands and the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Stress is the emotional and physical strain caused by our response to pressure from the outside world. Common stress reactions include tension, irritability, inability to concentrate, and a variety of physical symptoms that include headache and a fast heartbeat.

It is crucial to understand the stress level within the workplace, the likely causes of stress, and the impact stress is having on the workforce. In order to accurately investigate the health of your working environment, there needs to be a Stress Audit to look at these issues.  The Workplace Stress Audit uses a questionnaire, which establishes the likely causes of stress, and its probable levels, in an organization or employment setting.

The Stress Audit is a valid tool, which can identify stress within different departments, job categories, from a gender perspective, age group, and can establish likely stress levels and indications of impending health problems. There are three very compelling reasons why an employer should tackle stress:


Employers do not generally wish to make their employees ill, and would even seek to prevent it as far as possible. Work-related stress can make employees ill, so the ethical approach is to do everything possible to prevent stress. That means, first of all, measuring how much stress there is, finding out what is causing it, and where it is in the workplace and how to eliminate it.


All companies have a legal obligation to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety that their employees may be exposed to while at work. It is the legal responsibility of employers to ensure that their employees are not made ill by their work. Where stress caused or made worse by work could lead to ill health, employers must assess the risk. If necessary, [they] must then take reasonable steps to deal with those pressures. There has, over the last ten years, been a significant rise in litigation. An increasing number of employees have taken their employers to court for stress-related illnesses caused or made worse by their work, and have received compensation from the courts.


Mental illness causes more lost work days than any other chronic condition, costing the Canadian economy $51 billion annually in lost productivity.  Mental health claims are the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Absenteeism due to stress has increased by over 300% since 1995. The average direct cost of absenteeism is $3,550 per employee per year, according to Watson Wyatt Canadian Staying @ Work Survey.

There are also many other hidden costs associated with staff who are suffering from stress, such as: lack of commitment, high staff turnover, costly mistakes, and poor customer service.

The questions in the Stress Audit cover the main factors associated with workplace stress:

  • Relationships
  • Role
  • Demands
  • Control
  • Change
  • Support

This type of audit produces viable data from which recommendations can be made, so that limited resources can be targeted more effectively on the areas of greatest need. The audit is the simplest and most effective way of finding out what levels of stress exist in an organization and where particular problem areas are.

How to Conduct Stress Audits

Conducting workplace stress audits is a comprehensive procedure that should be undertaken by trained individuals who are fully knowledgeable of all contributing factors associated with workplace stress. In order to conduct a stress audit, you will need to use validated methods and techniques. One of the crucial components of conducting accurate workplace stress audits is to ensure all respondents have equal opportunity to participate in the survey, and especially  important, is that all employee respondents have a safe and confidential opportunity to fully disclose their true feelings. This process with lead to correctly identifying the potential stressors in your organization and will offer you with a concise summary highlighting the significant issues.

The Stress Auditor will need to work with your company to identify the demographic data that can be gathered and the best method to conduct the audit. Once the demographic categories are identified, and the audit parameters are identified, the questionnaires can be developed.  This can be done in a variety of ways, such as an online survey, mail outs (with pre-stamped returned envelopes), or a workplace interview format. Once all replies are received by the respondents, the data will be captured, analyzed and results tabulated. These results should then be explained in detail by the audit team to management. It is important to note that although the audit is based on research it will not lead to scientific outcomes, where results are exact. The report is accurate based on the results that are received on the completed questionnaires but in interpreting the report, you may need to allow for slight deviations caused by human emotions. These occurrences will in the minority however, and like any survey, the results will be accurate of the majority of people, most of the time.

Implementing Change, Using the Results of a Workplace Stress Audit

The workplace stress audit results are based on responses from a group of employees and will describe a reasonable and credible ‘picture’ of the perceived stressors in the group. It is therefore logical that appropriate measures may be taken based on the findings, and these measures are likely to lower stress levels that are work-related.

The results from the audit will provide you with details on the type and location of existing problems, as well as any positive points, which will enable you to target resources where they are most needed. The action to be taken will depend upon the employment culture and available resources and supports. You will find with a detailed stress audit, areas are clearly identified for action. For instance, if ‘poor communication’ is identified as an issue within the workplace which causes stress, there are several options that may be utilized. For example:

1. Bring all employees affected on a communication training course
2. Change all current training procedures already in place to include this training
3. Implement policy within the workplace to increase positive communication
4. Make methods of communication, i.e., notices, policies, job duties, etc more available to all employees

Decisions on action should emanate from the management team, however should involve employee representatives, as it is very important that decisions are made by persons who understand the culture of the organization, its resources, and know the employees.

When Should you Conduct the Next Stress Audit?

It is recommended that organizations conduct a follow-up stress audit in 12 to 18 months after implementing action from the first audit. It is important to allow enough time to implement any necessary interventions, balanced against any changes that may occur in the organization to make the first audit out of date. In some circumstances you may wish to audit more frequently to assess the impact of any major changes.

Return to Top


Section 7: Maintaining Work-Life Balance

Overworked Leads to Unhealthy Employees

Encouraging and assisting your employees maintain a healthy work-life balance is vital to the health of your employees and company. Employee burnout has a major impact on productivity of your company and leads to increased costs associated with health care.

Overworked, ill matching of job requirements and skill sets, lack of proper training, and over stressed employees are more likely to get sick and have high absentee rates. An employee’s abilities, their workload, their responsibilities and how much support they have in the workplace are crucial considerations an employer must constantly be aware of.

Stressed out workers typically have higher turnover rates than healthy workers. Employees can only work at unhealthy levels for so long before they get completely disenfranchised and leave the organization. This leads to higher costs associated with recruitment and training costs.

In addition, presenteeism can significantly affect the fiscal success of the organization. A lack of balanced work-life separation can negatively affect an employee’s morale and ability to maintain positive and enthusiastic attitudes. Employees who develop negative feelings towards the workplace can quickly influence co-workers and bring down the satisfaction levels of everyone around them.

With the high costs associated with short-term sickness benefits well publicized, employers recognize that there are methods to help employees juggle work and home life. Many of these include simply showing employees that you respect their personal time and provide employees with the courtesy of enjoying their personal lives when not in the workplace.

Electronic Communications

Today’s electronic world includes 24/7 instant communications. Although in most cases this has taken the business world from community and regional organizations to worldwide capabilities in a few years, it has also brought with it very important needs concerning communication policies for workers.

In far too many cases, there are no distinct policies regarding communications within organizations. Employees are often supplied with laptops, blackberries, cell phones, webinars, videoconferencing and other technology etc, without a second thought to realizing this comes with responsibilities from both the employer as well as the employee. Both parties must fully understand there is a real concern that over work will eventually wear down even the heartiest of souls. Employees are too often answering emails late in to the evening, at home, in restaurants, on the subway, walking down the street, and everywhere in between. While this seems innocent enough, in reality, this can have serious negative effects on the health of people. Without enjoying mental breaks from the pressures and responsibilities of the workplace, employees are carrying stress with them for too many hours each day.

While often beginning innocently enough, left unchecked, communications can quickly impede on employees lives in an unhealthy manner. If employees are expected to be in constant contact with the office, answer emails at all hours of the day and night, when in reality, it can and should wait until the morning; there are problems.

Stress Touches Others

Work-life balance is important for the employee as well as the family of the employee. Families are often negatively touched by the actions of the employee trying to handle increasing workloads and lengthy hours. It is increasingly important to be aware of the added communications of organizations to be careful not to unnecessarily impede on the personal time of employees. Without adequate time for families to spend away from the workplace, you risk the possibility of increased resentment from family towards the workplace. This could exacerbate in to stressful events if the family begins to experience what it perceives as feelings of neglect by the employee if too much time is spent away from the family on business.

All employees should expect to be challenged, but the demands of your job should not negatively affect your health or happiness. Although we speak about work/life separation, in fact, we are really speaking about finding a healthy balance between the two.

Start by planning ‘quality time’ away from your work every week; ban yourself from talking about your work during this time. Try to take proper lunch breaks when you don’t think about your work.

Getting Away From Work

Spending time away from your job can be the most positive thing you can do when you are feeling stressed. A week or so away can have a huge impact on your approach and attitude towards your work when you return. Try to make the most of time with family and friends who are not connected with your workplace. Your work is important, but it should not take over your life. Try and ensure that you have some other activities that stimulate a different part of your brain, such as making better use of time with your family; doing something creative like learning an instrument or hobby; going for walks, exercise or a sports activity.

Eat Healthily

It’s obvious, but looking after yourself means eating regular meals, enough fruit and vegetables and being aware of your alcohol, fat and sugar intake. Plan in some form of regular physical exercise and get sufficient sleep.

Simplify Your Life

Identify your priorities and adjust your life to make time for things most important to you. Check out your time management. You may be working too many hours, and you may be trying to do too much in the free hours you have. Are there steps you can take to free up some of those busy hours at home? If you are too tired to talk to people in the evening, don’t answer your phone, and ignore those texts coming through.

Personal Self-care

Take time to look after yourself. Each day, do something you love doing. Say “no” sometimes. Recognize when you are getting stressed, and develop techniques to manage your stress levels. Identify key people who can help you.

Employers Reward Your Staff

Give employees days off. Certain projects or seasons require an unusual amount of work or overtime. After these busy periods are over, reward your employees with a complimentary day off or two. It will emphasize how much you appreciate their efforts and the sacrifices they’ve made. Plus, it increases the chances that they’ll voluntarily pitch in for the next big project.

Return to Top

Section 8: Promoting Wellness in the Workplace

Creating Healthy Environments for Healthy Businesses

Employee wellness leads to a more productive and motivated workforce, positively influencing success. Employee illness can have a major impact on increased business operating costs. By not having a Workplace Wellness Plan; productivity loss, increased health care premiums, increased use of sickness benefits, and absenteeism, will lead to decreased employee motivation and workforce dependability.

We spend a considerable amount of our lives in the workforce. Many of our social encounters are with co-workers and associates. We can often tell when something is not right with one of our coworkers. Usually happy people can appear withdrawn, edgy, angry, and preoccupied, among other feelings. We can sense that they may be under pressure or stress, yet we may be concerned about approaching them to discuss any issues which may be affecting them. This scenario plays out in all businesses and companies across this country and is a prime example of why creating a mental health program collaboratively with all stakeholders is crucial to promoting mental wellness in the workplace.

Let’s highlight the steps in developing a Workplace Wellness Plan.

  1. Firstly, bring management, workers and union representatives together to agree that this is an area which is important, needs to be properly addressed and requires solutions, resources and attention.
  2. Establish a Health and Wellness in the Workplace Committee and allow them to develop the policies and, with appropriate approvals, implement the policies and practices.
  3. Designate a Wellness Coordinator for implementing action plans.
  4. Create and allocate a sufficient budget that will support health and wellness activities.
  5. Conduct a stress audit to identify problem areas.
  6. Develop a stress action plan and polices to tackle problems.
  7. Develop and/or improve workplace practices and policies, e.g., communication, attendance management, time off for personal wellness and/or responsibilities (children, family, etc.) employee training and mentoring, improved supervision and leadership development, employee appraisal and development, return to work/rehabilitation for people with illnesses or disabilities, (including necessary supports, etc.), and investigate potential for job sharing with flexible days and hours to suit individual needs of employees (e.g., episodic disabilities, special family situations, etc.).
  8. Create effective and open grievance procedures.
  9. Create health and wellness programs for the workplace activities to promote physical fitness, e.g., bicycle/ walk/ run to work, lunch hour fitness activities, company sports teams or the provision of exercise equipment. Provide bicycle racks and changing facilities to accommodate people who cycle to work.

Special Activities to Promote Workplace Wellness

We have all heard presenters and business persons talking about the innovativeness of Canadian companies. Yet, there are businesses who find it  challenging to tackle mental health in the workplace. Often, this stems from a misunderstanding of what constitutes wellness activities and how to go about implementing them.

This section will provide some innovative ideas which will act as guides for both employers and employees. Through developing creative programs to increase the level of wellness activities within the workplace, employers and employees will have an improved understanding of mental health issues and how wellness is achieved and maintained.

Of utmost importance is communication activities; Wellness posters on display boards, brochures handed directly to each employee (and management), as well as placed in employee information centres, and coffee/ break rooms. The writing of the informational handouts would be overseen by the Wellness Committee and would include workplace programs, policies and practices.

Develop wellness columns to add to the company newsletter. Create a Health and Wellness section which will include mental health information, personal success stories, and articles of interest that promote discussion and understanding of the importance of mental health.

Consider Group training to improve communication skills, working in teams, time management, health and wellness.

Provide training to all staff on recognizing stress and mental health symptoms in themselves and those around them. Also consider in-depth training for managers, supervisors and trade union representatives on recognizing stress and signs of mental illness symptoms.

Bring in community speakers. Contact local mental health organizations and ask that  guest speakers discuss mental wellness and provide inspiring personal stories. This puts a face on the illness. Videos that discuss mental wellness are also available.

Create an employee personal time policy. Give employees some paid time off to involve themselves in activities which will promote health. Taking part in walk-a-thons, community festivals or fund-raising events will provide exercise, social opportunities will promote healthy community interactions. It doesn’t have to be a great amount of time. Six to 12 hours a year are usually sufficient to show appreciation for the staff member.

Host a wellness seminar/ workshop. This will offer an opportunity to promote awareness and understanding of mental health in the workplace. Bring in special presenters. Consider partnering with other local businesses on this initiative. This could lead to health and wellness in the workplace campaigns among a group of employers within your community.

Create some Health and Wellness awareness events, afternoons/ mornings, or days per year where management ensures all employees discuss, learn and/or share information on mental health. These types of activities raise the level of comfort in speaking about mental health. They are the best possible opportunities to discuss mental health between employers/ employees and to understand that if mental illness occurs in the workplace, it will be addressed with compassion, understanding and professionalism. It is imperative that nobody is blamed or stigmatized because of mental illness.

Seek out company memberships or reduced fees for local health clubs and health facilities. Seek out intra-business leagues and sports opportunities such as baseball or soccer.

Make available information for contacting employee assistance for problems such as substance and/or alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS, family counselling, smoking cessation, stress or  mental illness. Employers and employees should be provided with paid time off for health appointments such as at doctors’ offices, hospitals, or other health centres. Confidential counselling through an independent  outside agency should be available.

Support fully the reintegration of anyone into the workforce who has been off sick with mental health problems. Ensure that the employee is part of the rehabilitation process and is comfortable with that process. Do not penalize people who have taken time off or sick leave for mental health reasons. Ensure stigma and discrimination is known to all staff and management for what it is, hurtful and unacceptable.

Consider workplace exercise and even in-house massages. Studies have shown workplace massages are becoming more popular and relieve stress and tension. Encourage people to use stairs rather than elevators.

Return to Top

Workplace Anti-Stigma Resource

EITR logo
EITR: A national anti-stigma campaign designed to eliminate the stigma associated with mental Illness.


Join our Workplace Facebook Group

This Facebook Group helps foster positive mental health, and reduce negative stigma in the workplace.

MDSC would like to thank Janssen Inc. for an unrestricted educational grant which made it possible for MDSC to develop some of these workplace resources.