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Promoting Mental Health and Gender Equity in the Workplace

Happy workers

Healthy professional knowledge workers

Employee mental health is crucial to meaningful and productive work experiences. Depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses can affect how people relate to others and how they function. In the workplace, mental health issues can also compromise workers’ interpersonal relationships and abilities to get tasks done.

Mental health issues can be particularly challenging for those who work in knowledge-intensive sectors such as health, education, and finance because of the importance of the mental acuity of such professionals to provide knowledge-based services to clients, patients, and students,” explains Dr. Ivy Bourgeault, Telfer School of Management Professor and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Chair in Gender, Work and Health Human Resources.

As a result, many workers struggling with mental illness in these sectors are forced to take a medical leave while others suffer in silence, fearing stigma and backlash in the workplace. Both situations can have serious consequences for employees, organizations, and the economy. A 2015 report prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada shows that one in five people in Canada suffer from mental health issues every year, with an estimated cost to the economy of more than $50 billion.

The first interdisciplinary and collaborative research to study workplace mental health in Canada

Promoting psychological health and safety in the workplace in the areas of health, education, and finance is crucial because of the significant role that professionals in these sectors play in creating knowledge, driving innovation, and developing the economy. Understanding the importance of this, Professor Ivy Bourgeault has launched an interdisciplinary and collaborative research program entitled “Healthy Professional/Knowledge Workers: Examining the Gendered Nature of Mental Health Issues, Leaves of Absence & Return to Work Experiences from a Comparative Perspective.”

Professor Bourgeault and a team of 21 researchers from Canada and the United Kingdom, including Telfer School Professors Laurent Lapierre and Darlene Himick, will study how male and female knowledge workers experience mental health issues at work, what motivates them to stay at work or negotiate a mental health leave, and how they return to work after such a leave. The researchers will work in collaboration with at least 30 non-academic organizations representing a range of professional associations, unions, regulators, employers, and government agencies in Canada.

Professor Ivy Bourgeault

Professor Bourgeault’s team has been awarded a $1,425,000 Partnership Grant for their project on workplace mental health. The grant is part of the Healthy and Productive Work Initiative jointly overseen by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Professor Bourgeault’s success in securing a CIHR-SSHRC Partnership Grant strongly indicates that this Telfer School-led research team can make a valuable contribution, helping policy-makers and organizations more effectively promote mental health and gender equity in the workplace in Canada, says François Julien, Dean of the Telfer School of Management.

How does gender influence mental health experiences, leaves, and return to work?

The role gender plays on how knowledge workers experience mental health is noticeably absent in research. The research team’s preliminary findings suggest that female knowledge workers are affected differently by workplace mental health issues: they reported higher work absences and perceived higher life and work stress than did their male counterparts. To better understand how and why this happens, Professor Ivy Bourgeault’s team will use a gender lens to examine knowledge workers’ experiences with mental health in three scenarios:

1) staying at work despite significant mental health issues: What are the key factors that prevent knowledge workers from taking a leave? Do men and women working in these professions access health support systems and resources differently in their organizations?

2) taking a mental health related leave of absence: What are the key factors that lead knowledge workers to take a mental health related leave of absence? Do men and women experience the process of contemplating/negotiating a leave of absence in the same way? Do they face similar or unique workplace conflicts once they choose to take a leave?

3) returning to work after a mental health related leave:  What happens when knowledge workers decide to go back to work after taking a mental health related leave? Are the factors that motivate female and male knowledge workers to return to work different?

Helping policy-makers and leaders promote mental health in the workplace

By examining the gendered experiences of male and female knowledge workers who have dealt with mental health issues, the research team’s goal is to identify, evaluate and develop evidence-based interventions in order to promote mental health in the workplace.

Ultimately, the team hopes to inform and influence policy-makers and organizations in the development of more effective and equitable policies, practices, and programs that can mitigate the negative effects of mental health issues in the workplace and reduce the gap created by the systematic barriers that male and female knowledge workers face in their experiences with mental health related leaves and subsequent returns to work.

The team will also focus on how organizational leaders can play a meaningful role promoting psychological health and safety in the workplace:

“The behaviors and leadership styles of supervisors and managers is an important influence on workplace mental health, preventing leaves of absence and facilitating return to work of different workers, but research also shows that these leaders can unfortunately encounter several procedural and organizational constraints,” explains Professor Bourgeault.

The interventions that the research team will develop could help organizational leaders overcome these constraints and better support workers who are facing mental health issues.