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  • Northwoods Health Centre

Are we facing a coping crisis? How well we cope with stress can affect our mental and physical healt

Do you ever worry about how effectively you’re coping with your life demands?

For the vast majority of the population, the answer is yes. Typically, how a person is coping with the demands of their life and work defines the amount of stress they have. For most people, feeling stressed is viewed as a negative and something they don’t want. Rarely will someone state that stress is good for them.

Coping with stress is a common challenge for many people. Stress can leave them feeling overwhelmed and powerless with no options for relief. If the stress continues, so does the risk associated with chronic stress, such as creating or exacerbating mental health issues.

How someone copes with their daily stress load can define their mental and physical health. Mental illness is being reported as a growing problem in Canada. Are we experiencing a mental health crisis? Perhaps a better question is: why is mental illness on the rise here?

Genetics plays a key role in mental illness, but mental health can also be influenced by psychosocial life stressors triggered by problems with finances, relationships, or work.

Individuals caught in a cycle of ongoing stress are at greater risk for mental health issues. Consider the case of ‘Sam.’ His No. 1 stressor is work, where he has a poor relationship with his manager. Sam believes that his manager’s expectations are unrealistic and as a result feels overwhelmed every day. It’s common for Sam to leave work thinking about the day’s events, so his work stress is having a negative impact on his feelings, physiology and his thinking even after the workday has ended.

Sam goes home each evening feeling stressed. Over time he has developed an unhealthy routine to cope. He sits in front of his TV for hours, eating junk food. As a result, this 43-year-old’s health has suffered both physically and mentally.

Sam is not atypical. It’s common for people to engage in unhealthy behaviours as an attempt to escape from the pain associated with stress, such as unhealthy eating, using alcohol or drugs, gambling or using other escape mechanisms. The tragedy for Sam is that he is unaware that what he has chosen to do in order to improve how he feels has resulted in his current situation.

Sam hasn’t thought to address his workload issue with his manager, or let his manager know how he feels, instead keeping those thoughts to himself. He finds any stress hard to manage, but hasn’t tried to find ways to improve his coping mechanisms.

It is important to point out that workplace environmental stressors can be a major cause for employee stress. Managers stress is real. Employers can take actions to reduce environmental stressors. Employers can also support employees like Sam develop their coping skills so they are better equipped to address issues at work with managers.

I have worked with many people like Sam in a clinical setting. My role as a professional therapist is to help people learn how to better cope with their life stressors or mental health challenges. My main regret is that they too often fail to seek out support until there is a crisis.

What if person like Sam got support early and had an opportunity to develop his coping skills? The skills that would give him confidence to address issues at both his work and personal life? How many Sams could be positively impacted?

Could we be experiencing a coping crisis, rather than a mental health crisis? What is clear is that many people are struggling with stress and, if they could cope better, there would be less risk to their health.

We know that people who don’t cope well with stress are more at risk for experiencing mental and physical health issues. Through the Your Life at Work survey, done by Howatt HR and The Globe and Mail, we found that coping skills play a positive role in predicting employees’ work engagement and health. The survey of more than 7,000 people found that those with better coping skills were happier with their jobs and experienced fewer physical and mental health issues.

As a society, we teach people how to read and write but we have yet to formally teach people how to think and cope with the stress we all face. If more organizations and employees focused on improving their coping skills this could help generate more discussion on their benefits.

This is the topic of my new book, The Coping Crisis: Discover why coping skills are required for a healthy and fulfilling life, which will be launched through the Conference Board of Canada via a webinar on Wed., Sept. 30 at 2 p.m. EDT.

The purpose of this book is to provide workers with an introduction to coping skills and how they play a role in a person’s total health. The more we focus on prevention and supporting employees to develop their coping skills, the better employees will be able to manage their daily stressors.

To date, more than 12,000 people across Canada and beyond have engaged in our Your Life at Work surveys – on work, life and family stress. Each survey provides insight on coping skills.

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

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