IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail


Mitigating the Potential Impacts of Emotionally Demanding Work through an Employer/Employee Preventive Process

Mitigating the Potential Impacts of Emotionally Demanding Work through an Employer/Employee Preventive Process

In Québec, the work performed by a large number of workers in the public sector is emotionally demanding. These workers include Youth Centre employees, who work with a highly challenging clientele, often carry a heavy workload and frequently lack support resources. Post-traumatic stress, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological distress, absenteeism, loss of productivity and high staff turnover are some of the known consequences of these demanding working conditions. Concerned about this problem, the Centre de jeunesse de Chaudière-Appalaches decided to implement an employer/employee preventive process in partnership with a research team. The various stakeholders at the youth centre launched an initiative based on a proven intervention method. The advisory committee created to assist throughout the process facilitated the implementation of the intervention.

The Intervention Process

The conditions for a successful intervention were implemented in the development phase. “A crucial first step is to agree on the existence of the problem, and then to obtain the commitment of all parties, particularly senior management,” explained Nathalie Jauvin, the principal investigator. The participation of all employee groups was essential, as was enlisting their support for a preventive process. The availability of representatives of the employee groups and funding for the preventive intervention were also factors in its success. Dr. Jauvin stressed the importance of having “adequate preparation and the necessary training” to undertake such a process. “It’s important to take the time to do things well,” she advised.

An employer/employee Intervention Support Group (ISG) was formed to identify needs and prioritize possible actions. This committee had in hand the results of the analysis that had been carried out by the research team, based on interviews and questionnaires. With this information and tools designed by the researchers, the ISG developed and implemented the priority interventions, specifically, those with the following pre-determined targets: workload, decision latitude, recognition and social support.

Given the context and resources available, the ISG concentrated its efforts on developing five initiatives: (1) outfitting a room for staff working directly with young people; (2) preparing an awareness-raising talk about the reality of work in youth centres; (3) adding a specialized resource person to the Employee Assistance Program; (4) creating a “peer helper” program; and (5) reorganizing the educators’ work schedules. Although the changes proposed by the ISG concerned the four pre-determined targets, the largest number of actual achievements related to improving social support measures. This result is partly attributable to the ISG members’ firm conviction that by reinforcing social support – an important protective factor – it would be easier to cope with the demanding nature of the work. This result is also partly due to the fact that these support measures, which directly affect the workers, have a greater immediate impact  than those requiring changes to the organization of the work per se, particularly in a radically changing provincial social services context. Dr. Jauvin stated that, since it is very difficult to directly influence the conditions under which emotionally demanding work is performed, “we must try to influence the resources available, such as social support, in order to have an impact on the work.”

  • Team/peer/supervisor support
  • Professional support (EAP, dedicated professional, etc.)
  • External support (e.g. police officers)
  • EAP project
  • “Peer Helper” project
  • Staff room
Space for dialogue
  • Space for discussion
  • Space for letting off steam
  • Staff room
  • Protocols
  • Training sessions
  • Staff room
  • Calm periods
  • “Battery recharging” time
  • Time away from work
  • Reorganization of schedules
  • Staff room
  • Recognition from the organization
  • Recognition from families
  • Recognition from society
  • Awareness-raising talks
  • Staff room

The constraints

The 2015 overhaul of the provincial health and social services system created a significant challenge during the implementation phase of the process. However, the strong commitment of all the partners kept the project on track, and the initial objectives were attained. Using the data collected, an assessment was made of the organizational and contextual changes, the factors facilitating and hindering the development of the interventions, and their management by the workplace. Data were collected by means of participant observation, a log kept by the study coordinator and one-on-one interviews with the key stakeholders. A communication tool published by the research team regularly informed the Youth Centre employees of the ISG’s activities.

Although the final assessment will not be completed until 2020, the data already obtained have revealed positive benefits. The employees and managers interviewed regard the improved access to support resources, as well as the anticipated impact with respect to reducing the negative impacts of the emotionally demanding work, as generally favourable. The partnership with the workplace and the implementation of a shared forum for understanding and developing solutions generated a support movement within the organization: “The simple fact of being able to talk about it was positively perceived by people, showing them that there was a prospect of improvement,” explained Dr. Jauvin.

An inspiration for other workplaces

Long-term residential care facilities (CHSLDs), hospitals, emergency services and intervention sectors working with people with intellectual or physical impairments, among other workplaces, could benefit from this knowledge and take inspiration from the interventions developed. Dr. Jauvin believes that the lessons learned apply to all workplaces where employees perform relational work (work involving interpersonal relationships). Even so, “each workplace should carry out its own analysis, identify its priorities and develop its own specific intervention strategies,” she emphasized. To embark on such a process, the organization must be open to shared leadership, collaboration, innovation, adaptation and flexibility.

Maude Dionne