Skip to main content
your life at work

Experts have warned leaders repeatedly about the increased risk of mental health issues within the Canadian work force and how that could hurt employees' health, engagement and productivity in the coming years.

As a result, more employers are looking at ways to support and promote employees' mental health. They recognize that promoting mental health is good – not just for employees but also their organizations, because mentally healthy and happy employees are more likely to be engaged, effective and productive at work.

Today more companies are taking steps to implement a mental health strategy to reduce mental health risk. Such strategies often include:

· creating a mental health policy;

· providing managers with mental health training;

· educating the work force on mental health issues;

· providing employees access to employee and family assistance programs;

· exploring what the employer can do to reduce external stressors (such as bullying or ineffective managers);

· providing employees an opportunity to self-evaluate their mental health and coping skills.

Coping skills are the tools a person has at their disposal to manage the demands they put on themselves or that originate from their environment. How effectively a person deals with such stressful demands ultimately depends on the person's ability to cope with relationships and work.

I have written on the positive benefits of coping skills in an online article and a book, The Coping Crisis. My motivation is to promote the benefits for employers to do what they can to reduce environmental stressors and to help employees develop their coping skills.

Many Canadian workers have never been taught coping skills such as problem solving, decision making, emotional regulation, and resiliency. Coping skills also include intrapersonal skills that support mental health and self-esteem, which are at the core of a person's ability to positively evaluate their self-worth and to believe in their ability to achieve their goals.

This article introduces a concept called "the coping skills conundrum." It starts with knowing where to begin and then determining the gap between where a person is currently and where they want to be. After 30 years of working in the area of mental health, I have learned that most individuals who are not coping well and are making poor choices realize it. They also know that they would benefit by learning new coping skills.

As taught by Dr. William Glasser, most people with a difference between what they want and what they have perceive it as pain. When a person is experiencing a sensation of discomfort or pain they look for a path to escape it and find pleasure. Pleasure comes in many forms, some of which may not always be in an individual's long-term best interest, such as drinking too much or overeating. The risk is that these types of behaviours become learned and automatic, with the sole intention of immediately making you feel better.

At the core of the coping conundrum is how a person manages their internal psychological pain while learning a new, healthy behaviour.

Let's take New Year's resolutions as an example. One common resolution is to lose weight. The science is simple: burning more calories than you take in results in less body fat and weight.

So why do so many people fail at this resolution? It perhaps has less to do with motivation than awareness of how the mind works. A person can have a clear plan to lose weight but the demands of life don't stop; stress and pressure continue to challenge your priorities and energy. It makes it that much harder to follow through and break bad habits.

The coping conundrum occurs in the time it takes to move from an old habit to a new one. A new habit can take somewhere from three to six months of focused determination to become automatic. If changing behaviour were simple, more people would achieve their New Year's resolutions.

It's all too common for people who are trying to change to relapse, as the brain automatically sends thoughts to revert to an old behaviour. During this period, learning a new habit is difficult.

When a person makes a choice to replace an old behaviour that was perceived to provide immediate relief with a new behaviour that has not yet given any benefits, the test is to deal with the day-to-day challenges and to not act on old behaviours that can still feel like the right choice.

The path through the coping conundrum is guided by being aware of micro behaviours and delayed gratification. Gaining 30 pounds doesn't happen overnight; it takes many poor micro decisions. Losing the weight and experiencing the benefits follow the same path. If focused, on average a person will lose 1.5 pounds a week with a responsible diet and exercise plan, so it will take 20 weeks to lose 30 pounds, and perhaps another 20 weeks to ingrain this new lifestyle habit.

In the end, overcoming the coping conundrum requires a super decision. Accepting your situation and the consequences that come from short-term pleasure compared to long-term health is a powerful decision that can lock in a state of mind.

Creating change often requires tapping into your core value that enjoying health and happiness requires change and delayed gratification. In fact, some discomfort can be expected for several months before there are any noticeable change and benefits for the better. However, once you get through this gate you will be through the coping conundrum.

Bill Howatt (@billhowatt) is chief research and development officer, work force productivity, at Morneau Shepell.