Some of the most intriguing books in history are about the resiliency and triumph of the human spirit. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a teenage boy loses his entire family in a shipwreck and spends 227 days at sea in a lifeboat with a man-eating Bengal tiger. More recently, in Andy Weir’s The Martian, a wounded astronaut is left for dead by his crewmates on Mars with insufficient supplies and no way of communicating to the world that he is still alive.

What is fascinating about these stories is that very few individuals would have the courage to overcome such insurmountable circumstances. These tales may be fictional, but the reality is that so few of us possess the coping skills needed to effectively deal with our everyday lives, let alone an unexpected traumatic event.

Today’s workplace is a far cry from what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The speed of change is increasing exponentially, driven predominantly by technological innovation and shareholder return expectations that require organizations to continuously improve efficiency and output by doing more with less in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

These pressures often put greater work demands on employees who are faced with mounting workloads as organizations grow or restructure. What this means for the average Canadian employee is that the idea of a 9-to-5 workday no longer exists, and the line between work and home life has become progressively more blurred. Many of us feel like we need to be accessible nearly 24/7, regardless of whether this expectation is real or perceived.

Unfortunately, these demands show no sign of letting up any time in the foreseeable future. One of the problems is that few employers have done a satisfactory job of helping employees improve their coping skills to deal with these types of changes. Some employers implement change with essentially a “sink or swim” approach; while some employees are up to the challenge, many feel as though they have been metaphorically left by their employer to survive on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or abandoned on a distant planet.

If this is the new reality, employers have a responsibility to help employees learn the coping skills needed to deal with ever-increasing demands. Many employees can become paralyzed by today’s work pressures, which may prevent them from performing at their best – both at work and at home.

When employees are stressed out and exhausted, they are more likely to resort to poor lifestyle choices like picking up fast food instead of cooking a nutritious meal, mindlessly sitting in front of the TV or surfing the Internet instead of exercising, and overindulging in alcohol or recreational drugs. These behaviours, if not appropriately addressed, can result in reduced engagement and productivity, as well as increases in drug costs and incidences of absence and disability.

According to Dr. William A. Howatt, author of The Coping Crisis: Discover why coping skills are required for a healthy & fulfilling life, “when a coping crisis is left without resolution, it can lead to a mental health crisis.”

Dr. Howatt’s research and experience in this area predicates that coping skills, or lack thereof, are the root causes of much of what ails many Canadian workers, and that employees who are equipped with the right coping skills will generally be more engaged, productive and happier in the workplace.

So what can employers do to tackle this challenge? The best place to start for most employers is to use resources available through their employee and family assistance plan (EFAP). Most EFAP providers offer a wealth of resources for employers, such as leadership coaching information and monthly newsletters, often at no additional cost to the current per-employee monthly rate.

Simply making employees aware of the confidential support services available through their EFAP can get the ball rolling. Employers will typically see a short-term increase in use following an EFAP promotional campaign, which generally means more employees are getting the help they need.

EFAP providers can also tailor campaigns to target specific areas of need, such as coping skills. Employers may want to engage their EFAP providers and benefits advisors in advance of any major changes that are likely to put additional strain on their employees.

A great example of this approach is integrating EFAP into a change management plan associated with the switch/upgrade to a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software platform.

While better coping skills can help improve your employees’ resilience in handling change and increased work demands, implementing such programs should not excuse employers from addressing workplace deficiencies, such as prolonged excessive workloads, abrasive leaders and toxic environments.

However, for employers striving to improve engagement and achieve an overall culture of health, an emphasis on coping skills is a critical component in attaining these results.

Kenneth MacDonald is a senior consultant with Morneau Shepell in Calgary. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2021 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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