Workers Health & Safety Centre

Almost half of public safety personnel report suffering mental health symptoms

Almost half of public safety personnel report suffering mental health symptoms

A new national study finds correctional officers, 911 dispatchers, paramedics and other first responders are at significant risk of developing a mental-health disorder.
 
The study, entitled Mental Disorder Symptoms among Public Safety Personnel in Canada, found more than 44 per cent of almost 6,000 public safety personnel (PSP) surveyed screened positive for symptom clusters consistent with one or more mental-health disorders. Amongst the general population, Statistics Canada reports approximately 10 per cent suffer from mental health issues.
 
“We expected that it would be high, but I think 44 per cent was higher than I expected,” said Dr. Nick Carleton, psychology professor at the University of Regina and lead author of this study.
 

Harmful exposures at work

Although stress is a normal part of life and work, too much can lead to debilitating health impacts. This survey clearly found a significant number of PSP are dealing with excess stress as a result of their work. 
 
A few specific examples are spelled out in this study, including paramedics who “report experiencing very high rates of exposure to human suffering for which they often feel responsible, potentiating substantial emotional stress.” Also mentioned are the “extraordinary environments” faced by correctional officers that can “reasonably be hypothesized to increase risk for developing a mental disorder.”
 
These survey results add to a growing body of research linking these and other workplace exposures to the development of serious mental health impacts ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder. Research also suggests stress is a significant contributing factor to many physical health impacts, ranging from the common cold and musculoskeletal disorders to heart disease and cancer. 

Protecting workers’ mental health

“If their mental health is at higher risk because of the things that we are asking them to do, then we need to make sure that we are providing additional resources to protect that mental health,” said Dr. Carleton in reference to PSP.
 
Much of the discussion about these resources, both related to this study and in general, tend to focus on access to support mechanisms and treatment options for those suffering. Many employers turn to stress management training preparing those affected to use personal coping strategies.  The main criticism of such initiatives is they focus on the worker and generally ignore the work hazards that can cause stress and ultimately mental injury.  
 
While some stressors are inherent in the work performed by PSP, some aren’t and can be eliminated while others can be mitigated. Overcrowding and understaffing in Ontario’s correction system is just one example. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), for instance, continues to press the government to address what they are calling the ongoing crisis in Ontario’s correctional system. In December, 2016 they provided the government with a list of measures they feel will help defuse the crisis, including hiring and training of additional correctional officers along with nurses and mental health workers. They are also calling for constructing, repairing, and retrofitting infrastructure to ease overcrowding.
 
At issue in some cases is a resistance to changing the way work is designed, planned and executed. In others, input by workers or their representatives is looked upon with a degree of scepticism.
 
Also at issue is the lack of recognition mental injury at work can extend beyond the subjects of this study. The Ontario Nurses Association for instance, has repeatedly highlighted the hazardous conditions their members face in emergency rooms, corrections facilities and the like.
 
To get beyond these roadblocks to healthier work environments, training the entire workforce, management included, on the consequences, sources and solutions of occupational stress is an important first step. Dr. Carlton agrees. “The more we educate our organizational leaders and the more we educate our organizational members, I think the better off we’re going to be,” he says. In fact, Carlton adds, proper education can lead to earlier intervention. 

WHSC can help

For our part, the Workers Health & Safety Centre continues to assist all workplace parties through training programs and information services aimed at raising awareness about stressful employment factors and targeting prevention at the workplace level.
 
Other related news from WHSC
Stressful work factors driving cardiovascular disease
Campaign seeks to end abuse of call centre workers
Smartphone app targets workplace stress (OHCOW)
New Canadian Standard focuses on workplace mental health
 
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