Mental Health Through Occupational Therapy

Jan 25, 2017
Dan Haves

The important role occupational therapists play in helping people with mental illnesses is being increasingly recognized by people like Canada’s Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott, who recently remarked on how they are “…helping people to get back to work and to build the coping strategies they need, to get on and enjoy productive and meaningful lives."

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, one out of five working Canadians currently experiences mental health problems or illnesses. And roughly 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims are attributed to mental health. Professor Bonnie Kirsh, Associate Professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and the Department of Psychiatry, spoke to Faculty of Medicine writer Dan Haves about some of the ways in which occupational therapy can help promote mental health in the workplace.

Associate Professor Bonnie KirshAssociate Professor Bonnie Kirsh What are some of the common misconceptions about mental health in the workplace?

Even though we have made great strides in mental health, stigma in the workplace remains a problem. Workers still fear being seen as weak or unable to manage the stress of work, and consequently are reluctant to reveal their need for help. This means that every day, workers are struggling to hide their mental illnesses from their employers and colleagues instead of getting the help they need.

Additionally, employers and coworkers often fear – without basis – that a worker with mental health problems will not be competent, both socially and in terms of work skills. They also worry that unmanageable costs will be incurred with the need for accommodations. However, we know that accommodations often cost very little and enable workers with mental health problems to be successful and exercise their potential.  

How do occupational therapists play a role in improving mental health in the workplace?

Occupational therapists (OTs) are experts in promoting a good fit between workers who may be experiencing functional limitations due to mental illness and the work environment. For example, OTs may work collaboratively with employees and employers to develop and implement accommodations in ways that address both parties’ needs. OTs are skilled in assessing the match between the demands of work and the skills and abilities of the worker, taking into account physical, social and emotional components.

What are some of the common mental illnesses that occupational therapists encounter?

OTs see people with just about every type of mental illness, but they are less concerned with diagnoses than they are with individuals’ ability to live satisfying lives. We address the goals that people have for themselves, and work collaboratively towards achieving them, through engagement in meaningful activity.

We work with youth who have experienced a first episode to help them remain in school successfully; we work with employees who have gone on disability for depression to help them get back to work; we work with young adults whose life path has been interrupted by mental illness and have never held a job, to help them enter the world of work; we work with parents struggling with anxiety and depression to help them manage their tasks and connect with their kids. In each case, OTs help people live a fulfilling and meaningful life, despite the limitations that they may have.

Do you have any workplace strategies for mental health, either for oneself, for colleagues or for employees?

Research has shown that a balance between demands and control can help foster mental health at work. Building in opportunities for worker involvement contributes to the process of creating and maintaining healthy workplaces.

A climate of openness and support is important, so that people feel free to get the help they need. Pay attention to colleagues and employees, and offer help if something doesn’t seem right.

Changes in productivity can be a sign that someone may be experiencing mental health problems, and a simple “is everything OK, can I help?” can go far in getting people the help they need. 


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