Anxiety, depression rise sharply as economy tumbles

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As the recession continues to slam Canadian companies, increasing layoffs are taking their toll on the mental and physical health of knowledge workers.

Anxiety and depression is on the rise and is expected to grow in coming months, as economic uncertainty looms, according to a new white paper titled What to expect in an economic downturn: trends, realities and forecasts.

The white paper — published by Ceridian Canada, a provider of payroll and human resources services in Markham, Ont. — was based on data collected in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Employees and employers in these countries are likely to see a rise in mental health issues, a more aggressive workforce, and adverse long-term health effects caused by chronic stress, and decreasing corporate trust.

Younger people, the report said, will experience the most stress, as they are more likely to be laid off, based on first-in, first-out policies.

Socio-economic changes brought about by high rates of job loss can have a profound impact on organizations of every size, the paper suggested.

And Canada is not immune to economic changes.

Twenty-four per cent of Canadians the Ceridian study found are very concerned about losing a job in 2009.

The country kicked off the New Year with the highest number of layoffs seen in a single month, since the early 1980s recession. In January around 129,000 Canadians were sent home permanently, many after several years of service.

Since then, the country’s unemployment rate has surged to 7 per cent, and 23 per cent of employers are planning more layoffs in the near future, according to Ceridian.

A study out of the U.S. (quoted in the Ceridian paper) suggests each percentage point rise in unemployment produces a 7 per cent rise in non-psychotic mental health disorders.

Excessive worry is a common symptom Canadians are displaying, according to Estelle Morrison, director of health management for Ceridian Canada. “People are feeling less in control, more overwhelmed and anxiety is pronounced.”

Ninety-one per cent of those who have personal debts reported deterioration in mental health, experiencing states such as stress or depression,

“Feeling hopelessness, despair and inability to function appropriately day to day are common occurrences,” Morrison said. She said many negative thoughts produce “physical symptoms, such as aches, pains, stomach issues, sleep concerns or eating problems.”

Workplace anger, irritability and nervousness are other byproducts of the recession, said Robert Allan, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Cornell Medical Center, and author of Getting Control of Your Anger.

The recession, he said, makes people feel insecure and can intensify faults and undesirable behaviours. And this, he cautioned, could be risky. “The worst thing you can do is lash out at people.”

One in five employees polled by Ceridian admitted being more ruthless during a recession.

Substance abuse is also likely to increase during the downturn as people turn to drugs and alcohol to lift mood, the report found.

Some employers believe a worried work force might generate better results, such as greater productivity and creativity — and workers willing to go the extra mile to ensure they stay employed.

But the emotions actually accomplish the opposite, Morrison said.

“People struggling with mental issues are unable to give their best,” she said. “When filled with angst, they are less productive, less committed and less able to engage at work.”  And because of this, what they’re worried may actually occur, making it a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Misemployment (people doing jobs very different from their training and experience) will be another growing trend, another expert says.

People displaced from their jobs also lose a lot of trust in the community, said Jennie Brand, assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

She said people also tend to withdraw from communities for several years and are less likely to be involved in youth groups or charitable organizations.

This is unfortunate, given the need for strong social networking skills during a job search, Brand said.

If left untreated, chronic stress can also produce long-term health problems, such as psychosomatic disorders, heart conditions and cancer, the Ceridian report said.

Chronic health problems, in turn, lead to higher absenteeism, rising corporate costs related to prescription drugs, and greater short- and long-term disability rates.

Canadians are already increasing their dosage of prescription drugs: the sale of pharmaceuticals increased by $1.2 billion in 2008, according to a study by pharmaceutical research company, IMS Health.

Health experts are also bracing for a spike in demand for their services, Ceridian found.

For instance, the B.C. provincial government will begin a mental health training program in June for physicians, to educate doctors on the latest mental healthcare support.

The program will provide up to 800 B.C. doctors with more support in dealing with patients’ mental health concerns, according to George Abbott, minister of health for B.C.

While employers cannot change the current economic climate, managing workplace stress requires effort on behalf of the employee and employer, Morrison said.

Employees, in turn, can attempt to prevent layoffs by channeling their worry and recognizing how their skills can be adaptive and flexible, she said. “Look at the big picture and focus on things you can help change. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, so you’re not blindsided.”

An employee who notices his or her sleeping patterns changing or mood souring, should do something immediately to fix it, she said. “Early intervention is critical in treating mental health.”

Good self care – including regular exercise and good sleep – can be helpful in preventing an illness, both mental and physical, Morrison said.

Employers need to develop open communication with employees to ensure everyone is kept up to date on the financial standing of the company, she said. “Be up front and honest and communicate as early as possible,” she said.

“Lots of discussion about doom and gloom or rumours about who could be next can cause some people to spiral down if already prone to anxiety or depression.”

She said employers should invest in supportive health wellness initiatives now. “With fewer people doing more work, employers need to send the right message and give some additional support to help prevent any further stress.”

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