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The State of Mental Health in Canada’s Healthcare Workers

Janet Pun | July 25, 2019

It’s not easy working in Canada’s Healthcare System.

The stakes are high and the job demands are ever-growing, with new challenges and pressures facing healthcare workers every day.

To face these challenges, governments have been attempting to reform our healthcare systems by introducing centralized ‘super healthcare agencies’, with at best, inconsistent results, worse off patient outcomes, and greater workloads for healthcare staff.

As a consequence, compared to the general public, healthcare workers are 1.5 times more likely to be off work due to illness or disability than people in other sectors.

Within Canada, there’s been an upward trend in healthcare worker burnout and mental illness:

  • 1 in 3 Canadian physicians screen positive for depression
  • Over 40% of Canadian physicians report that they are in the advanced stages of burnout
  • 9% of physicians had suicidal thoughts within the past year
  • Nearly 40% of nurses say they feel a high degree of burnout, and that this leads to patient mistakes
  • 14% of general nurses have tested positive for post-traumatic stress disorder

How did it get to this point and how can we begin to address it?

To help healthcare leaders address worker distress and lower patient outcomes impacting hospital performance, it’s important to understand what is contributing to the problem and what we can do to improve it.

Government Funding Cuts

Hospital performance and morale have been on a downward trend due to funding cuts by the government which has led to fewer resources, longer wait times, increased hallway care, frustrated patients, and anxious frontline staff who bear the heat of it.

According to a study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, healthcare worker burnout, low staff engagement, and increasing mental illness rates are a result of:

  • Heavy workload
  • High and prolonged stress levels
  • Lack of time, resources and staff to meet patient needs
  • Government budget cuts have had a direct impact on patient care scores, hospital evaluation performance, and disability costs.

Increase in Workplace Violence

To make matters worse, there’s also been a steady increase in disability claims among healthcare staff due to at-work violence, leading to psychological and emotional distress.

Particularly in the case of nurses, a survey conducted by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) revealed that in the past 12 months:

  • 43% reported being sexually harassed or assaulted
  • 68% have been physically assaulted
  • 86% reported being subject to verbal violence

Workplace violence deeply affects staff mental wellbeing, and when unaddressed, leads to higher disability costs, lower staff engagement, and lower quality of patient care and outcomes.

Mental Health Stigma & Fear of Disclosure

Due to mental health stigma in the workplace, healthcare workers are reluctant to disclose their mental health struggles to their supervisors. They fear that disclosure may impact their job security, performance appraisals, career growth, and even loss of their license.

In fact, 67% of Canadian workers would not feel comfortable talking to their employer about a psychological health issue, for fear of being perceived as incompetent by their direct supervisors and colleagues.

Adding to the stigma, many workers also believe that being on disability means they are no longer an effective member of their team, leading to a steep decline in confidence and belief in their abilities.

The Rise of Digital Mental Health Programs

Forward-thinking Canadian healthcare organizations understand that a proactive and innovative approach is required to address the mental health needs of frontline staff. Shift-work, stigma, and barriers to access qualified mental healthcare practitioners make it difficult for staff to receive the support they need.

A leading healthcare authority in B.C. is implementing innovative digital CBT programs to respond to the psychological and emotional needs of frontline staff. These programs provide staff who are at-work and struggling, with bite-sized mental health exercises that arm them with evidence-based strategies to build resilience to stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression. For staff who are at the point where they can’t work, Starling Minds’ digital return-to-health program support their rehabilitation and reduce anxiety when they are ready and confident to return.

If you’re a healthcare leader who is looking to respond to the mental health needs of your people, we’d love to talk.

 

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