The Alberta Survey of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health in the Workforce: 2009

The Alberta Survey of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health in the Workforce: 2009 is the third such study conducted since 1992. It provides an interesting, comprehensive picture of many issues related to the mental health of workers across all sectors in Alberta.


IHE is pleased to release the final report of The Alberta Survey of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health in the Workforce: 2009. The document’s authors, Dr. Gus Thompson, Dr. Carolyn Dewa (U of T), and Dr. Phil Jacobs oversaw interviews of 2,817 Alberta workers and 363 employers of varying sizes across all economic sectors. The final product required many months of analysis and writing.

Gus Thompson was chosen for this project because he has an extensive mental health background, a key element added to the 2009 Study but not present in either 1992 or 2002. Dr. Dewa is an expert at applying an economic lens to mental health issues. Dr. Jacobs is well known for his expertise on population health.

General Project Information

IHE would like to thank Alberta Health Services and their predecessor, the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, for supporting this important project. We’d also like to thank more than 3,000 workers and employers who participated in this survey. Without them there would be no information.

This is the third report on addictive behaviours in the workplace; it’s the first to include a mental health component, allowing researchers to discern important links connecting addictions, mental health, and employment conditions.

The reason a 2009 survey is being released in 2011 is that we finished collecting the information in December of 2009, so it’s a snapshot of what the province looked like then. The intervening time was spent analysing the research and writing the report. A significant amount of work is required to review 3,000+ surveys, quantify the data, compare specific elements to previous studies, and then explain the results.

The process involved selecting individuals at random. If they were at least 18-years-old and had worked in the previous 12 months, we asked them to participate. Because so many people, over 2,800, accepted, the results can be considered statistically relevant. Employer organisations were also selected at random and represent a cross-section of workplaces throughout the province.

The value of this kind of picture of our province’s employees lies in a couple of different areas. First, addiction plays an important role in the wellbeing of every person in the province. Second, it’s important that our health leaders and our government have the information they need to understand how addictions and mental health can impact our economy and our society generally.

When we talk about workers, we tend to think of people doing generic jobs. Another way to look at it is in terms of how we all interact with each other. For example, instead of “workers,” say “police officers” or “fire fighters” or “teachers” or “bus drivers” or “oil field worker” or “MLA.” Most of us are “workers” and we influence other people every day in myriad ways. So, while this is about workforce mental health and addiction, it’s also about the wellbeing of the province as a whole.

It is important to continue conducting such studies because, over time, we gain insight into how things are changing. Alberta has experienced considerable growth over the past two decades. Our economy has boomed and so has our population. What does that mean for employees and employers? This project and its predecessors allow decision-makers to track some of the significant changes relating to how people feel about their jobs and what kinds of problems they may be experiencing in terms of their mental wellbeing.

Key Findings

The first thing that stands out is that the higher the level of one’s addiction, the greater the chance that one has suffered some form of mental illness. That means really heavy smokers are more likely to have experienced some form of mental disorder than the person who borrows the occasional cigarette from a friend.

We also learned that 84% of Albertans experience a certain amount of workplace stress. The higher the level of stress, the greater the likelihood of mental illness and/or addiction. While fewer than one in five of us reports having suffered “extreme stress,” that number still represents a gradual increase over the past 20 years.

There’s also some good news, though it is tempered by areas of concern. In 1992, 40% of Alberta workers smoked. Now, it’s only 22%. Nevertheless, specific areas stand out, such as people employed in the hospitality sector, where rates of smoking and other addictions remain higher than among those who work in other sectors.

If we were to summarise our findings in one sentence, it would be this: “Most workers in Alberta enjoy good mental health, suffer relatively low levels of addiction, and generally like their jobs.” It’s a positive sign when people enjoy their workplace. That said, job stress is on the rise. We should consider what this might mean down the road and take appropriate steps now. It is more efficient and more effective to manage issues proactively than to react to potentially serious consequences down the road.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Given the link we’ve been able to make between mental health and addiction, we can conclude that merging both areas into one Alberta Health Services umbrella is a good move that could yield significant improvements.

We know without any doubt that workplace climate is important to an individual’s mental health. However, we also know that some people, regardless of their job conditions, are at greater risk of suffering mental health and addiction-related problems. A balanced approach will allow us to address both issues simultaneously. The ideal combination is a workplace that fosters mental health, supported by a system that makes treatment available to those who still need it. Inevitably, we must do a better job of identifying and supporting those individuals who succumb to job pressures regardless of how positive their environment is.

Mental health often stems from childhood experiences. This means that as much as we should support people in their workplaces, we can’t neglect early childhood interventions. It’s all interwoven - mental wellbeing, physical health, productivity. The old children’s song tells us that, “The ankle bone is connected the leg bone; the leg bone is connected ... ” The same applies here and we should consider a holistic approach to mental health and addiction in the workplace. At the end of the day, success relates to living happy, productive lives.

Publication Type: Economic Reports

Year of Publication: 2011

Topics: Health Economics / Healthcare Costs, Mental Health

Authors: Angus Thompson, Philip Jacobs, Carolyn Dewa

ISBN (online): 978-1-897443-98-9