SUMMARY: Some psychological health and safety issues can be stressors unique to certain sectors of the workforce. Research has provided some specific strategies that may help human services professionals, call centre workers, educators, emergency services personnel, dangerous industry workers, high tech workers, and shift workers.

Human services professionals

The following issues may present significant stressors for those who work with people in distress. They can potentially lead to an increased risk to psychological health and safety. The proposed approaches may help reduce this risk.

Issue: Frustration at not seeing clients move past particular problems or issues.
Proposed Approach: Hold regular group sessions (virtual or in-person) with colleagues to discuss situations and brainstorm solutions while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of clients.

Issue: Compassion fatigue and trauma from dealing with client problems.
Proposed Approach: Pair or group human services personnel together to offer emotional support on a consistent basis. This may be able to be done with colleagues, through a mentorship program or with supervisors. Other approaches include ensuring appropriate debriefing and rest after traumatic events, and varying intense work with less challenging work.

Issue: Workers taking on more work without addressing the negative impact to their psychological health and safety, due to pressure to reach work targets.
Proposed approach: Have managers check in with staff who are asked to take on more work to ensure that realistic goals and timelines are discussed with each new project.

Issue: Frustration at managers and supervisors who do not understand how they may contribute to stress in the workplace.
Proposed approach: Offer management training programs that teach best practices for supervising human service workers. Hold regular meetings that reinforce the value of the human service worker in the organization. Recognize that the role of a human services manager or supervisor may be especially stressful and that these employees also need support.

References

  • Collings, J.A., & Murray, P.J., (1996). Predictors of stress amongst social workers: An empirical study. British Journal of Social Work, 26, 375-387.
  • Hahym A. (2007). The unbearable fatigue of compassion: Notes from a substance abuse counselor who dreams of working at Starbucks, Clinical Social Work Journal, 35, 199-205.

Call centre workers

Call centres are highly structured workplaces that often have high levels of demand and low levels of control for employees. Research shows that this imbalance may lead to an increased risk to psychological health and safety among workers.

The good news is that there may be ways to manage this risk and provide a healthier workplace in a call centre environment. The proposed approaches may help reduce this risk.

Issue: Difficulty providing quality service and handling assigned number of calls in a specified period of time.
Proposed approach: Provide a forum for call centre workers to share successful strategies (e.g. script manipulation, effective use of forms). If a minimum quantity of calls is the desired outcome, consider an option to re-direct callers who cannot be handled in the average time allotted. This could involve a different quota system for workers who handle more complex calls.

Issue: Conflict caused by the need for an employee to suppress feelings when responding to certain callers. This is often referred to as emotional dissonance.
Proposed approaches:

  • Where possible, provide call centre workers with a reasonable degree of flexibility in difficult situations. Provide training to teach workers how to defuse situations where a caller is emotional and provide them with guidelines of what to do when a caller is being abusive.
     
  • Holding regular team meetings where employees are encouraged to share the types of calls that are most challenging and the approaches that lead to success can be both a productive and supportive use of time.
     
  • Some organizations have "silent" communication signals that allow employees to share victories or challenges through hand movements to other employees. This does not slow down or interrupt the flow of work, but encourages communication throughout the day.

Issue: Physical workspace and equipment that is uncomfortable, not ergonomically correct, and that is used by workers on different shifts.
Proposed approach: While these issues may seem related to physical rather than psychological health, physical wellbeing contributes to psychological wellbeing. Keeping the body healthy, comfortable and free of pain may also contribute to good psychological health.

  • Provide adjustable keyboard placement and ensure that chair and table are appropriate and ergonomically adjusted to the worker's needs both from a comfort and productivity perspective.
  • Lighting should be such that it avoids eyestrain and headaches.
  • Written and online text should be a minimum of 14-point font wherever possible to avoid eye strain.
  • Every worker should have their own headset for hygienic reasons as well as comfort.
  • Ensure that workstations that are shared are cleaned and left tidy after each shift.
  • Computers should be fast and reliable if the employee is required to provide a quick response.
  • Information should be easily accessible and forms should be flexible and easily completed.
  • The computer screen should be at eye level so that neck and shoulder strain is minimized.
  • Ensure workers have adequate breaks.

Issue: Constant and intense surveillance and monitoring of workers.

Proposed approach: Call centres depend on a huge amount of data gathering to report effectiveness to clients. This monitoring does not necessarily have to have a negative impact on the workers. Most of the psychological health-related risks could arise from a sense of unfairness or lack of control arising from the monitoring.

For example, when employees are penalized for being 3 seconds late in starting up a slow computer, but are not compensated for having to work 5 minutes overtime because they were handling a call, a sense of unfairness may begin to develop and grow.

To address this, reduce overt monitoring and negative feedback, which is a constant reminder to employees that they are being watched. Increase positive reinforcement from observations and ask employees how you can help them reach higher targets if this is appropriate. The suggestions you get may help increase productivity of all employees.

References

  • Lewig, K.A., & Dollard, M.F., (2003). Emotional Dissonance, emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction in call centre workers, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 366-392.
  • Taylor, Phil & Bain, Peter (1999), "An Assembly line in the head": work and employee relations in the call centre, Industrial Relations Journal, 30:2, 101-117.
  • Customer Management IQ
    Accounting for Presenteeism in Call Centre Planning and Forecasting
    This article by notable experts in the call centre industry addresses how to keep call centre workers engaged at work when life outside of work may be interfering with concentration and efficiency.
  • International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health (2009, 82(6))
    Working conditions in call-centers, the impact on employee health: a transversal study. Part II [PDF]
    This article describes the current implications of working conditions in the call centre environment. The study was conducted in France and highlights the increased frequency with which call centre workers experience psychological distress.
  • Shepell·fgi Research Group
    Employee Health and Well-Being: Trends in the Call Centre Sector [PDF]
    The aim of this Canadian research project was to answer the following four questions:
    • What issues and problems do call centre workers present to EAPs?
    • Are reports of these issues and problems increasing over time?
    • What characteristics or demographics of call centre workers would suggest exceptional risks for employee health, stress and depression?
    • Are call centre workers more likely to report stress and depression to their EAPs, even after controlling for other factors?

Educators

This category focuses primarily on teachers who spend time isolated from colleagues in classrooms with young students. The following issues may present significant stressors that can lead to increased risk to psychological health and safety. The proposed approaches may help reduce this risk.

Issue: Poor perception of the school or teachers in the local community.
Proposed approaches: This may impact the sense of value and pride in a teacher's work.

  • Determine why perception is poor and develop an action plan to address issues identified.
  • Engage teachers in a conversation about diffusing and disarming parental frustration. Help develop a peer support process to reduce the negative effects of school stressors.

Issue: A workplace culture of indifference or cynicism.
Proposed approach: Have students, teachers and principals collaborate, design and implement programs and events to raise school spirit. The process of deciding what events and the planning stages should be seen as just as important as the actual event in creating a more positive and cohesive school community. It may be helpful to include parents and other community members in the planning of such activities.

Issue: Inadequate or poor overall leadership from principal or administration.
Proposed approaches:

  • Helping to improve the administrator's effectiveness can be a controversial and complex thing to do, yet may be crucial to improving the work environment.
  • Ensure that principals and other leaders are role models and actively involved in supporting a psychologically healthy and safe work environment.
  • Recruit, hire, train and promote principals, managers, and supervisors based, in part, on their ability to resolve staff issues effectively, fairly and promptly.
  • Increase mechanisms to support principals, managers and supervisors to be accountable for following through and following up on promises, initiatives and resolutions.

Issue: Work overload exacerbated by excessive paperwork and administrative requirements.
Proposed approaches:

  • Carefully consider options and brainstorm alternatives for obtaining required data and information from teachers. Some school boards have introduced computer programs that significantly streamline this requirement of the job.
  • Encourage staff to take their breaks as research has shown that it can improve both mental health and productivity. See TakeYourBreak for a free approach at www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/tyb

Issue: Fear for personal safety.
Proposed approach: It is important to provide a balanced approach. Preparing for risk and taking measures to protect safety is an obvious requirement. In addition to this practical strategy, a calm and reassuring administrator should do what is necessary to provide a sense of safety when all necessary measures are in place.

Teachers should also feel supported when a threat or act of aggression has been made against them. Immediate and supportive action should be taken by the administration as well as following up with the teacher after an incident to see how they are doing.

Issue: Fear of losing a job due to disclosing a mental illness.
Proposed approaches:

  • Increase awareness of mental health and reduce stigma related to mental illness. Most educational institutions pay attention to student mental health with less emphasis on the mental health of staff. One way to do this is to subscribe to Working Through It (www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/wti) and share it with all staff through email.
  • Strike a working group among all of those who are involved in the process of return-to-work or accommodation when mental health is a factor. Establish the non-negotiable processes and examine the possibilities for improvements that can be implemented.
  • Review existing resources for staff who experience mental health concerns. Consider if these resources provide the necessary supports and if any resources available to students may also be adapted to be available to staff. Also explore low-cost or no-cost resources in the community or online that can augment what is already available.

Issue: Isolation from colleagues.
Proposed approaches:

While teachers often value time with students, the relationship is primarily one of giving. The need to receive support, recognition, acceptance and belonging can often go unmet in the classroom. Encouraging teachers to interact, support and encourage each other can be the difference between a stressed-out school environment and an energized one.

  • To increase camaraderie, plan for teachers and staff to be able to share time together before school meetings, at lunchtime activities and after-school events. Consider using a mentoring approach and other activities and initiatives. Ask the teachers what works for them and then help to create a situation where this can happen.
  • Identify and implement opportunities to validate the efforts made by staff on a daily basis by training all staff to "catch people doing it right". Provide special training to those in management positions to learn ways to provide positive reinforcement on a regular basis.
  • Support teacher discussion groups to share challenges and solutions related to the job. Help provide an environment where participants can feel safe to share openly. Issues can include children with behavioural problems including those who are violent, managing administrative duties, interacting with co-workers, relationship with principal, etc.

References

  • Leithwood, K. & McAdie, P. (2007) Teacher Working Conditions That Matter. Education Canada, 47 (2), 42-45.
  • Fimian, M.J., & Blanton, L.P., (1987). Stress, burnout and role problems among teacher trainees and first year teachers. Journal of Occupational behaviour, 8(2), 157-165.
  • Department of Children, Schools and Families - UK

Emergency services personnel

The rush of adrenalin, the sense of helping others and the constant variety may be the factors that attracted workers to emergency services. Over time, however, these same factors can begin to negatively impact the psychological and physical health of these well-meaning professionals.

Here are some statistics from The Tema Conter Memorial Trust.

  • It is estimated that 8% of Canadians have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our research indicates that this number is two to three times higher within the emergency services sector.
  • 16% to 24% of emergency services personnel have PTSD. We also estimate this number to be under-reported due to the stigma associated with seeking and accepting help.

The following issues represent some of the stressors for emergency services professionals that can lead to increased risk to psychological health and safety. The proposed approaches may help reduce this risk.

Issue: Recovery period between critical incidents is too short.
Proposed approach: De-brief personnel after handling a critical situation and determine appropriate wait time before they can be sent out to handle the next incident. Remember that different people will have different reactions. Some will be unaffected and ready to go to the next call. Others may need more time and assistance to help process and move beyond what has happened.

Issue: Employees who believe that their career advancement will be limited if they seek support for mental health issues.
Proposed approach: Be aware that discrimination on the basis of a disability, including a previous mental health issue, may be prohibited under applicable human rights legislation. This includes being passed over for promotion or training.

Speak openly about mental health and discuss that seeking support has the potential of reducing the risk of long-term effects. It may help to have senior staff who are willing share relevant experiences of mental health issues such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder so that others can see that promotion and advancement were still possible.

The facts of any particular situation, including such things as job safety would have to be taken into consideration in coming to any determination.

Issue: Unable to save or revive a person, and seeing a victim with catastrophic injuries.
Proposed approach: Speak regularly about the effect this type of call can have on the psychological health and safety of workers and what it takes to remain well. Provide appropriate trauma counseling and allow personnel adequate time to recover.

References

  • Alexander, D.A., & Klein, S. (2001). Ambulance personnel and critical incidents. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 178, 76-81.
  • Paton, D. & Flin, R. (1999). Disaster Stress: An Emergency management perspective. Disaster prevention and Management, 8 (4) 261-267.
  • Harris, M.B., Baloglu, M., & Stacks, J.R. (2002). Mental health of trauma exposed firefighters and critical incident stress debriefing. Journal of loss and trauma, 7 (3), 223-238
  • Genest, M., Levine, J., Ramsden, V. & Swanson, R. (1990). The impact of providing help: Emergency workers and cardiopulmonary resuscitation attempts, Journal of Traumatic Stress. 3 (2) 305-315.

Additional Resources

The following are links to resources that may be of interest to you. If you click on a link you may be entering a third party website not maintained or controlled in any way by us or our affiliated companies. For more information, see Legal and Copyright.

The Tema Conter Memorial Trust
This website offers resources and information for emergency services and military personnel regarding post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and barriers to receiving care.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Association
PTSD related articles, research, coping strategies, and self assessment test.

Dangerous industries workers

Employers in some industries may feel that they cannot retain workers with a history of depression or anxiety, because the work they are required to do is dangerous. With the right approach, workers in these industries who have experienced mental health issues can be productive and safe.

An open and supportive work environment can be conducive to the early identification and treatment of those who are unwell. The following issues may present as significant stressors for workers in dangerous industries, which could lead to an increased risk to psychological health and safety. The proposed approaches may help reduce this risk.

Issue: Constant need to be on guard against hazards.
Proposed approach: Where feasible, use a buddy system, which may help to alleviate the strain of workers always having to look out for themselves. Having a co-worker to communicate with on job sites can also reduce stress brought on by isolation or uncertainty.

Issue: Harsh and dangerous physical environment, and repetitive, monotonous but difficult physical tasks.
Proposed approach: Where possible, arrange regular rotation of tasks and ensure workers take appropriate breaks.

Issue: High possibility of industry-related injuries, e.g. chainsaw kickback among workers in the forestry industry.
Proposed approach: Provide regular and ongoing training on avoiding injuries. Provide statistics on how training and awareness can decrease the incidence of specific injuries for the worker. Work habits may tend to get sloppy over time, so refresher training should be compulsory for all workers.

Issue: Poorly designed protective equipment.
Proposed approach: Provide the most appropriate protective equipment and educate workers about how to use it. This allows the worker to be safer and it provides a sense that the organization values their wellbeing.

References

  • Slappendel, C., Laird, I., Kawachi, I., Marshall, S., & Cryer, C. (1993). Factors affecting work-related injury among forestry workers. Journal of forestry research, 24, 19-32.
  • Chen, W.Q., Wong, T.W., Yu, T.K., Lins, Y.Z., & Cooper, C.L. (2003). Determinants of perceived occupational stress among Chinese offshore oil workers. Work and Stress, 17 (4). 287-305.
  • Murray, M., Fitzpatrick, D., O'Connell, C., (1997). Fishermen's blues: Factors related to safety and accidents among Newfoundland fishermen. Work and Stress, 11 (3) 292-297.
  • Journal of Occupational Medicine (2009, 59:5)
    • Offshore industry shift work: health and social considerations [PDF]
      Speaks to the unique issues faced by offshore shift workers, as opposed to the issues of shift work more generally. Specifically, the article highlights how the tasks and attention requirements of offshore shift work differ in psychological impact from regular shift work positions.
  • Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health (2008)

High Tech Workers

Computers have revolutionized our work world. Those who work primarily in the high tech industry are faced with the constant need to learn new and complex information, to solve difficult problems and to work in isolation.

When they do interact with other workers, it is often at a time of frustration or fear over new or problematic technological issues. There are also those whose work may involve monotonous and repetitive tasks or prolonged work without human contact.

The following issues can be stressors for high tech workers that can lead to an increased risk to psychological health and safety. The proposed approaches may help reduce this risk.

Issue: In some positions, workers have almost no control over the job or the ability to make decisions.
Proposed approach: Identify situations where workers can make decisions and empower them to do so. It can be in identifying areas for improvement, interacting with other workers to solve challenges, or even in helping determine the best environment, e.g. lighting, sound and positioning of equipment.

Issue: Unrealistic performance expectations made worse by poor relations with supervisor.
Proposed approach: Suggest that the manager and employee set performance targets together and arrange to review targets on a regular basis. See Supportive Performance Management for other tips.

Issue: Uncomfortable workstation.
Proposed approach: Provide a chair and worktable that enable the worker to be comfortable and productive. Where possible, allow the operator to determine the lighting, sound and other factors that impact their work environment.

Issue: Computer and other equipment are unreliable.
Proposed approach: Regular failure of equipment can result in a high level of frustration and loss of productivity. Listen to operator complaints about equipment that breaks down frequently and where possible, respond to their concerns promptly.

Issue: Tasks are repetitive and monotonous.
Proposed approach: Where possible look at rotating or varying tasks or allowing operators some flexibility in making tasks less monotonous, e.g. consider permitting use of personal music device, if it is safe to do so.

References

Smith, M.J. (1997). Psychosocial aspects of working with video display terminals (VDTs) and employee physical and mental health. Ergonomics, 40 (10), 1002-1015.

Shift workers

According to the American Psychological Association, those who do shift work often find that their sleep patterns are disrupted. If they are not able to sleep successfully, they become sleep deprived, and mental health issues can be an outcome. Mental health issues may go unrecognized because the symptoms are attributed to fatigue, stress, "burn-out" or job or family issues.

Workplaces and employers may benefit by helping shift workers understand the importance of getting the rest they need to remain healthy, productive and safe.

An open and supportive work environment can be conducive to the early identification and treatment of those who are unwell.

Employers can share the following strategies with shift workers to help them avoid experiencing sleep loss, and possibly a risk to their mental health:

  • Be aware of the overall health benefits of adequate sleep – Sleep is as necessary as good food and exercise for good health.
  • Be protective of sleep – All workers should do what is necessary to get at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep. This can include turning the phone off, getting headsets for children to listen to music, television or games, carpeting for floors, having a designated sleeping room away from noise and light, and informing friends and neighbours about work/sleep schedules so they know when the shift worker is sleeping.
  • Choose healthy sleep aids – Alcohol is an unhealthy, yet commonly used sleep aid that, while promoting relaxation to help fall asleep, actually disrupts deep sleep and may lead to depression.
  • Enlist family support – When there is a shift worker in the family, it is a shift-working family. Workers are encouraged to involve the entire family in making it work.
  • Match your "type" and your schedule – So-called "night owls" and "early birds" adapt differently to different shift schedules. Shift workers who know their "type" are in a better position to choose a shift schedule that makes it easier for them to adapt and get the sleep they need.
  • Be aware of sleep disorders – These are often at the root of a shift worker's sleep issues, but may not get diagnosed because the problems are attributed to shift work.

For more information on the importance of sleep and sleep strategies, see Approaches to Wellness.

Additional Resources

The following are links to resources that may be of interest to you. If you click on a link you may be entering a third party website not maintained or controlled in any way by us or our affiliated companies. For more information, see Legal and Copyright.

Associated Sleep Services
Associated Sleep Services is a sleep disorder screening centre that uses advances in technology to help provide first-line diagnostics to assist physicians in confirming a diagnosis of a sleep disorder.

Ying & Yang: Depression and Insomnia
Sleep educator and therapist Carolyn Schur discusses impacts of insomnia on mental health.

Alert @ Work
Alert @ Work is dedicated to promoting health and safety for those who do shift work and night work and their managers.

Night Owl Network
Night Owl Network is dedicated to helping night owls live comfortably in an early bird world.

  • Depression and Night Owls
    Sleep educator and therapist Carolyn Schur provides strategies to help night owls address sleep-related issues.