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BILL HOWATT: COVID-19 has resulted in dramatic increase in Canadians’ mental health concerns

Ample research suggests that mental health is a growing concern in Canada, so employers can expect more employees will experience a mental health issue. In addition, changes in occupational health and safety legislation are influencing the psychological health and safety conversation.
Employees' concern for their mental health increased over 15 factors from before COVID-19 was reported in Canada to June, according to a new study. - 123RF Stock Photo

Eighty-four per cent of respondents to a study conducted by the Conference Board of Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada reported that concern for their mental health increased over 15 factors from before COVID-19 was reported in Canada to June.

The relatively short time the COVID-19 pandemic has been prevalent in Canada has added a layer of complexity, uncertainty and disruption to Canadians’ work and home life. They’re more concerned now about the health of their family, employment, finances and overall mental health.

The study also measured what people are doing to cope with their increased concerns. The three categories that people looked to choose their coping skills was prosocial (e.g., exercise, talking with family member, meditation), help seeking behaviour (e.g., psychologist) or at risk behaviors (e.g., self-cutting). Respondents who had a high level of concern were much more likely to engage in at-risk coping behaviours such as increasing alcohol consumption.

One key recommendation from this study for both employees and employers is to develop healthy prosocial coping skills to deal with worry and stress.

What is the link between stress and at-risk coping skills?

When a person gets to the point that they’re experiencing unwanted stress and unsure how to stop it, it’s common to look for symptom relief. The focus shifts from finding the source to trying to feel better by easing the pain of the negative emotions. Some people snack and eat to feel better, even when they’re not hungry. Others turn to cannabis or alcohol to create an emotional state change. Some kinds of coping skills can become a risk when their frequency, duration and intensity (FDI) increase and become habit-forming. Food, drugs, alcohol and video games are among those choices.

The primary purpose of these behaviours is an attempt to feel good. The perceived benefits are often short-lived and as the FDI increases so can the risk for addictive behaviour or harm to self and others.

What are prosocial coping skills?

Prosocial coping skills are activities that promote mental and physical health. They provide benefits such as calmness, energy and clarity. Activities include walking a pet, meditating, journaling, gardening, running, reading, volunteering and deep breathing.

Prosocial coping skills are most effective when used consistently and become habits. This often happens over time when their benefits are recognized and acknowledged. The ultimate benefit of healthy prosocial skills is positive mental health.

Prosocial coping skills and mental health

Both employees and employers should be mindful of how prosocial coping skills promote mental health. Employers can support employees to discover how their daily actions and decisions can have a positive impact on their mental health. It’s helpful when employers are aware of how the employee-manager relationship can affect employees’ resilience and ability to cope with work demands.

Tips for maximizing the benefits of prosocial coping skills:

  • Awareness — Start with self-awareness of what you’re doing and then decide on what to continue, stop and start. Complete an inventory of your prosocial and at-risk coping skills and rank them in order of most used to least used when stressed. Notice the order and the number of potential at-risk coping skills.
  • Accountability — Changing mental health begins with stopping a risky behaviour and replacing it with a healthy one. If you want to stop a risky behaviour, have a replacement in mind and the knowledge and skills, and be sure that it’s safe to do so. If you’ve been drinking alcohol heavily for the past few months to cope, consult with your doctor to determine the best approach for stopping. If you’re not sure how to change from an at-risk coping skill safely, seek professional mental health support.
  • Action — Awareness and accountability are important foundational steps. However, there’s no substitute for developing a plan and measuring progress. Participating in self-discovering activities such as taking course, reading or getting professional support can help you move towards prosocial coping skills. The object is to learn and develop knowledge and skills to discover what kinds of prosocial coping skills are best suited for your situation and needs.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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