Against the Darkness
Promoting mental health in Arctic workplaces
By Alexandra Kay

lthough psychosocial risks can be found in all sectors, some workers are more likely to be exposed to them than others, because of what they do or where or how they work,” notes a World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet titled “Risks to Mental Health at Work.”

If the “where” is north of the Arctic Circle, workplaces face unavoidable risks from geographic isolation, extreme weather, and dark winter days. “Physical and social isolation due to weather and socioeconomic burdens, as well as the lack of sunlight leading to a marked deficiency in Vitamin D, all contribute to mental/emotional health struggles,” says Joseph Delong, a physician assistant with Alaska Behavioral Health, which provides behavioral healthcare services around the state.

In Utqiaġvik, Alaska’s northernmost town, the sun is down for sixty-five days in a row in winter. “Towards around February, you start getting a little itchy,” says Jeff Seifert, general manager of radio station KBRW. “I’ve seen folks that just can’t take it.”

To compensate, city streets are well lit, but little can be done about the town’s remoteness. Seifert says, “I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have air service. A couple of times this winter, we’ve gone several days without being able to get a plane in. When that happens, people get a little nervous.”

The landscape itself adds to the desolation. “It’s just flatter than a fritter here,” says Seifert. “There’s no mountains; there’s barely hills. You can look out on the tundra and actually see the curvature of the earth. I mean, it just goes on forever.”

Fortunately, there are many things employers can do to help support employees’ mental health and

Offer Flex Work Schedules
“Think outside of the conventional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday work week,” says Sarah Koogle, clinic manager in Fairbanks for Alaska Behavioral Health.

According to WHO, risks to mental health at work can include “long, unsocial, or inflexible hours” and “conflicting home/work demands.” WHO recommends that employers prevent mental health conditions at work “by implementing organizational interventions that target working conditions and environments… [including,] for example, providing flexible working arrangements.

Flexible work arrangements are schedules that differ from the traditional work week. These can include reduced hours; a compressed work week, where employees work longer days to have more days off; remote work; flex time; opportunities for job sharing; or leave time of various types. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, flexible work arrangements help employees manage responsibilities outside of work and lead to “increased job satisfaction, energy, creativity, and ability to handle stress.”

A 2011 study from researchers led by University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen noted that employees at Best Buy who were allowed to change their schedules and whereabouts based on individual need experienced several positive benefits, which included reduced psychological stress, emotional exhaustion, and work-family conflict, as well as increased self-reported health, sleep quality, and energy levels. The study concluded that giving workers more freedom with both location and time enabled them to care for themselves better. According to Moen, “Emphasizing actual results can create a work environment that fosters healthy behavior and well-being.” And both of these are essential for good employee mental health.

Scheduling flexibility can also provide employees with the time needed to take part in traditional cultural activities, which is an important component of mental health. A 2006 study by Kevin Yoder of the University of North Texas found that “higher identification with the traditional culture (enculturation) was protective against suicidal ideation.” This finding was corroborated by a report from WHO and a Canadian Royal Commission on cultural change and identity among the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic. Giving employees time to take part in cultural activities of their choice can help them to feel a larger part of their community, thus improving mental health.

Those activities are mostly in summer. Seifert notes that longtime residents of Utqiaġvik tend to hole up in their homes and workplaces in winter. “You just stay inside in the light and stay busy and keep working. It’s a good opportunity to get things done that you can’t do in the summer because you want to be outside and active,” he says.

“A very important thing in Barrow is to be able to get off the rock… get down to the bigger city. So folks try to get out of here at least a couple of times a year, just to preserve their sanity.”
Jeff Seifert, General Manager, KBRW
Encourage Social Interaction
According to an article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior by Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, “Social relationships—both quantity and quality—affect mental health….” The authors add that “social support may have indirect effects on health through enhanced mental health, by reducing the impact of stress, or by fostering a sense of meaning and purpose in life.”

Since employees spend much of their waking hours at work, it’s important for employers to nurture social interaction if they want employees to feel their best. The Reward & Employee Benefits Association—a network for human resources, risk management, and wellbeing professionals—suggests that employers allow time for socializing, such as time after a weekend to let employees catch up with each other, which lets them get to know one another better and allows them to build connections. For remote workers, this includes employers reaching out so that employees feel connected, such as inviting remote workers to social events and activities.

Employers can also utilize events like shared meals, wellness challenges, and team building activities to help employees build relationships with each other, as all three offer informal time at work for employees to chat and get to know others. Further, employers can take time to introduce employees to each other and provide an initial connection that can help employees feel more comfortable reaching out to one another.

Finally, offering a comfortable social space in the office—such as a break room or comfortable couch or chair groupings—can help employees gather informally when they are eating a meal or taking breaks.

Breakup of sea ice on the coast of Utqiaġvik opens a slim maritime connection for a town otherwise accessible only by air travel.

Jeff Seifert

Breakup of sea ice on the coast of Utqiaġvik opens a slim maritime connection for a town otherwise accessible only by air travel.

Jeff Seifert

landscape of ice and snow in alaskan water
Promote a Healthy Work Culture
The first day Seifert arrived in Utqiaġvik in 2013, it was May but still dark and cold. He had lived in Sitka, so he was used to inclement weather. Now he added more layers to his wardrobe.

As a manager, Seifert says he makes sure to take care of his team. Despite very high turnover in remote communities, his four-person staff has held together for the whole decade he’s been at KBRW. He checks in on their well-being, and the team shares responsibilities.

Koogle emphasizes the importance of a healthy work culture. According to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, which provides resources for workplace mental health and psychological safety, “When an organization has a psychologically safe culture, employee well-being, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment are all improved. Conversely, if the culture is negative, it can undermine the effectiveness of great programs or policies intended to support the workforce. If an organization has a culture of fear and constant chaotic urgency, it can create an environment in which burnout and low morale are common.”

The Society for Human Resource Management says that organizations need to move beyond the “just get work done” idea and think long term with employees’ concerns at the top of their mind. Ninety-four percent of managers agree that a positive workplace culture creates a resilient team of employees, and since resilience can directly correlate to better mental and physical health, it’s important for employers to take steps to ensure their employees feel positive about the culture of an organization. And according to Harvard Business Review, “a sense of belonging at work ultimately serves employees mental health, overall performance, and much more.”

There are several ways in which employers and workforce managers can help to promote this type of environment. Employees should be encouraged to share their thoughts on things like potential company improvements and processes that might not be working well. Employers and workforce managers should encourage clear and open communication among all employees as well as transparency between managers and workers. Workers should be given clear guidelines and expectations for work.

According to WISQ—a platform that helps improve social well-being by enabling employees to connect, share, and build relationships at work—improving workplace climate can be done by forming an inclusion council made up of workers across departments and levels of seniority, investing in recruitment tactics that foster diversity and inclusion, and encouraging employees to find community and support within the company through employee resource groups. WISQ also notes that empowering managers to share real-time feedback and recognition with employees and finding a balance between focusing on results and the experiences people have in achieving those results are also beneficial to culture. And finally, employers can hire people whose values align with those of the organization, and they can actively recognize behavior that supports that culture.

Preparing a grave in Utqiaġvik during the 65-day night.

Jeff Seifert

Preparing a grave in Utqiaġvik during the 65-day night.

Jeff Seifert

cemetery with crosses covered in white snow during 65-day night
Help Employees with Self-Care
Each year, 18.8 million American adults (9.5 percent of the adult population) suffer from a depressive illness, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, depression is responsible for an estimated 200 million lost work days each year, at a cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers.

“GoodRx Research has found that many Arctic communities live in a mental health desert, meaning they live in an area with no mental health providers,” says Tori Marsh, director of research at GoodRx, an online prescription drug clearinghouse. “For instance, the Kusilvak Census Area [in the Lower Yukon region] has a 96 percent American Indian/Alaska Native population with more than ten tribes…yet no mental health providers.”

picture of shop
Jeff Seifert
As if living in a mental health service desert weren’t enough, Marsh adds that Arctic communities also face greater need for services due to “isolation, colder climates, or less daylight leading to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Additionally, currently available mental health options may not feel culturally competent for Arctic communities.”

Marsh recommends that employers bridge the gap in the lack of mental health providers by offering employees options for teletherapy. “Increasing access to telehealth is just one of many public health strategies that could help address mental health disparities the AI/AN community faces and provide timely care in rural areas,” says Marsh. “Our research also found that many Arctic communities had a lower than average percentage of households with any form of broadband. Broadband internet is typically necessary for video or online telehealth calls, and broadband internet is not always accessible to those living in rural areas.”

Employers can also offer benefits that support mental health, such as paid time off and subsidized therapy. Among states, Alaska had the fourth highest proportion of uninsured population in 2020 (behind Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia), according to Alaska Scorecard 2021.

Additionally, employers can offer mental health training that includes ideas for mindfulness and stress reduction techniques, and they can work to promote open conversations about mental health to reduce any perceived stigma employees might feel over admitting any struggles.

The CDC suggests other strategies, “such as holding depression recognition screenings; placing confidential self-rating sheets in cafeterias, break rooms, or bulletin boards; promoting greater awareness through employee assistance programs (EAP); training supervisors in depression recognition; and ensuring workers’ access to needed psychiatric services through health insurance benefits and benefit structures.”

To that list, Koogle adds that employers can help employees to partake in self-care, such as offering discounts at local gyms.

On the North Slope, self-care often involves venturing south of the Arctic Circle. “A very important thing in Barrow is to be able to get off the rock,” says Seifert. “Every once in a while, get down to the bigger city. So folks try to get out of here at least a couple of times a year, just to preserve their sanity.”

Provide Support
Employers can also support people with mental health conditions to participate in and thrive at work by providing three interventions, says WHO:

  • Provide reasonable accommodations at work to adapt working environments to the capacities, needs, and preferences of a worker with a mental health condition.
  • Offer return-to-work programs with ongoing clinical care to support workers in meaningfully returning to work after an absence associated with mental health conditions.
  • Support employment initiatives to help people with severe mental health conditions to get into paid work and maintain their time on work through continuing to provide mental health and vocational support.

Those who live and work in the Far North have good reasons to be there. Seifert calls Utqiaġvik a “hard working community” and says his neighbors are “the toughest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

To stay put, they must figure out how to stay healthy. “That’s just something you get used to doing,” Seifert says. “We just suffer through the darkness and look forward to when the sun starts peeking up.”