Talk the talk: a glossary of terms

Stigma and Discrimination - Stigma is a personal attitude and belief that negatively labels a group of people, such as those with mental illness. Stigma creates fear and consequently results in discrimination which discourages individuals and their families from getting the help they need.

Stress - Stress refers to potentially negative physical or mental tensions experienced by a person. A stressor is any event or situation that an individual perceives as a threat; precipitates either adaptation or the stress response. Stress can come from both good and bad experiences, so the effects of stress can be positive or negative. Stress is not all bad - without stress, there would be no productivity or engagement. Stress becomes a problem when individuals are not able to handle an event or situation and become overwhelmed.

Demand/control and effort/reward relationships - Major causes of job stress come from problems with conflicts in demand vs. control as well as effort vs. reward. When the demand and control an employee has at work changes, stress results if either factor is not increased or decreased proportionately. The same is true for the relationship between effort and reward. Changes to the organization can make for a more mentally healthy workplace, especially when employees feel appropriately rewarded for their effort and in control of their work.

Presenteeism - Presenteeism is the action of employees coming to work despite having a sickness that justifies an absence, therefore they are performing their work under sub-optimal conditions. When employees come to work not mentally present due to an illness, extreme family/life pressures or stress, they are not giving themselves adequate time to get better. Presenteeism can occur because employees feel

  • they cannot afford to take the day off
  • there is no back-up plan for tasks the individual is responsible for
  • when they return to work, there would be even more to do
  • committed to personally attending meetings or events
  • concerned about job insecurity related to downsizing or restructuring

Job Burnout - Job burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to demanding work situations. Burnout is the cumulative result of stress. Anyone can experience job burnout. However, professions with high job demands and few supports can increase the prevalence of burnout and reduce engagement. Helping professions, such as jobs in health care, teaching or counseling, often have high rates of burnout.

Burnout has three main characteristics:

  1. exhaustion (i.e., the depletion or draining of mental resources)
  2. cynicism (i.e., indifference or a distant attitude towards one's job)
  3. lack of professional efficacy (i.e., the tendency to evaluate one's work performance negatively, resulting in feelings of insufficiency and poor job-related self-esteem)

Harassment, Violence, Bullying, and Mobbing - Most people think of violence as a physical assault. However, workplace violence is a much broader problem. It is any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment. Workplace violence includes:

  • threatening behaviour - such as shaking fists, destroying property or throwing objects
  • verbal or written threats - any expression of an intent to inflict harm
  • harassment - any behaviour that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, annoys, alarms or verbally abuses a person and that is known or would be expected to be unwelcome. This act includes words, gestures, intimidation, bullying, or other inappropriate activities.
  • verbal abuse - swearing, insults or condescending language
  • physical attacks - hitting, shoving, pushing or kicking
  • bullying - repeated, unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour directed towards an employee (or group of employees) that creates a risk to health and safety
  • mobbing - ongoing, systematic bullying of an individual by his or her co-workers - this includes rudeness and physical intimidation, as well as more subtle and possibly unintentional behaviour involving social ostracism and exclusion

Most jurisdictional occupational health and safety acts have been expanded to include harm to psychological well-being. Organizations should not tolerate any violent behaviour including aggression, harassment or threats of violence. Violent or aggressive behaviour hurts the mental health of everyone in the organization and creates a psychologically unsafe work environment filled with fear and anxiety.

For more information on workplace violence, see the OSH Answers Violence in the Workplace.

Substance Use, Misuse, and Abuse at Work - Substance use, misuse, abuse, and coping strategies can have a significant impact on mental health at work. Addictions and mental health conditions are often coupled (called a concurrent disorder). However, it is often the addiction that first gets noticed, especially in the workplace. Generally, substance use becomes a problem when an individual has lost control over their use and/or continues to use despite experiencing negative consequences. Employers should look for warning signs that indicate an employee may be struggling with substance abuse. Some signs of substance abuse are similar to those caused by increased stress, lack of sleep and physical or mental illness. Don't assume that an employee has a substance abuse problem; however, ignoring warning signs will only make the problem worse if someone is indeed struggling.