Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

An Organizational Study of Mental Health in the Workplace

Document type Thesis
Author Malachowski, Cindy
Degree Ph.D., Rehabilitation Science
Publisher University of Toronto, Graduate Department of Rehabilitation Science; Toronto
Date 2015-06
Pages 150 pages


Workplace mental health is becoming of increasing importance, in part due to the rising social and economic costs of mental health issues in the workplace. Little is known about how the experience of workers with mental health issues is actively produced through their participation in workplace procedures and associated supports. The purpose of this research is to better understand how employees actively engage in institutional practices and associated social relations that ultimately coordinate and produce their workplace experience. Using institutional ethnography, I take up the standpoint of the employee living with mental health issues to explore the coordinating relations associated with workplace mental health. This approach sheds light on how employees' experiences are socially produced and coordinated across and between institutional processes and practices. Data collection included over 140 hours of ethnographic observations, the analysis of associated texts and documents, and interviews that were conducted with 17 informants. This research details some of the challenges experienced by one novice health science researcher while conducting ethnographic research, and provides techniques for addressing personal and professional boundaries, negotiating ethical dilemmas, and reconciling the emotional experience of transitioning back and forth between being an `outsider' and `insider'. In addition to these insights, the findings explicate the social relations and institutional processes that coordinate sick time utilization for workers experiencing mental health issues. We revealed that employee's work of managing workplace absence management programs while negotiating episodes of mental ill health was perceived as overwhelming, unfair, and even punitive. Employees would require formal and informal respite from work, and would often utilized vacation time when unwell in order to avoid institutional processes all together. The biomedical focus of the absence management program created uncertainty about what constitutes a bona fide illness, and caused managers to come to know their work activities as distinctively separate from the work of healthcare practitioners. This research contributes to the literature by highlighting how tensions are created through textually coordinated work activities within and between the corporate and healthcare sector. These insights are important in establishing where and how to enact change from the standpoint of the worker.