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Occupational Health and Safety for the Mind

A woman's face is pressed to her keyboard in a representation of workplace bullying

Until recently, occupational health and safety referred only to physical health and safety, and company policies reflected that. But in January 2013, after years of growing awareness and concern over the way work can affect people’s mental health, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which was developed with the cooperation of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Bureau normalization du Québec (BNQ). According to the commission, one in five people experience mental illness in their life. It contributes to stress, absenteeism, lost productivity, and it has become the leading cause of disability claims in Canada. In fact, the commission projects that mental health issues in the workplace will cost the Canadian economy nearly $200 billion over the next three decades.

The standard was created to help employers ensure that their workplaces are psychologically safe. But what is a psychologically safe workplace? Essentially, it’s one that prevents mental illness and promotes mental health by creating and sustaining an atmosphere of belonging, respect, recognition, and support, and that includes reducing, if not eliminating, the stigma associated with mental health issues. But why now? Why wasn’t the commission’s standard created years ago? What exactly is causing people to take notice of occupational health and safety as it relates to mental wellbeing?

Workplace bullying and other causes of mental illness at work

Apart from causes such as genetics and personal troubles, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) cites several causes for mental health issues in the workplace that are directly related to work. Among these causes are increased workloads, unpredictably shifting priorities, changes in job duties, increased emotional tensions, social isolation, and unrealistic performance expectations. However, workplace harassment, particularly workplace bullying – which can severely affect an employee’s mental health, and therefore their ability to perform – has been on the rise since the 1990s, with one in six Canadians having experienced it, according to the Canada Safety Council.

Although workplace harassment comes in many forms, workplace bullying, according to Dr. Aaron Schat of the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, focuses on the power gap between a supervisor and his or her subordinates. The bullying can consist of intimidating and/or humiliating acts, outright insults and more subtle forms of disparagement, such as eye rolling.

Workplace bullying and the law

Occupational health and safety laws vary across Canada, and most of them do not specifically address workplace bullying, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Some laws simply incorporate it into broader sections or rely on the fact that employers are generally responsible for protecting their employees. However, the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act has broken with this tradition, having been amended to hold employers responsible for incidents of workplace bullying. And while workplace bullying can be difficult to prove because of its my-word-against-yours nature, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, case law is increasingly siding with plaintiffs, penalizing employers for failing to prevent or properly handle such incidents. In fact, some argue that workplace bullying, when it is permitted to continue, is as disgraceful to an organization as racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

How to create a psychologically safe workplace

The failure to prevent or properly respond to mental injury at work poses legal consequences for employers that go beyond the OHS Act or workplace bullying. Regardless of the cause or situation, such failures may fall under legal areas such as human rights, labour law, and workplace standards. So, despite the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace being strictly voluntary, it is in employers’ best interests to take its suggestions seriously. But it’s also important to remember that creating a psychologically safe workplace is about more than avoiding legal action and paying disability claims; it’s also about good corporate social responsibility and good business. With a psychologically safe workplace comes better employee morale, increased productivity, as well as higher talent attraction and retention rates – all of which contribute to a better bottom line.

So how can employers go about creating a psychologically safe workplace? The following is a systematic approach any employer can take:

  1. Create a mental health policy

    Creating a formal policy that promotes the tenets of what makes a workplace psychologically safe, such as giving employees a sense of accomplishment, allowing for work-life balance, and laying out clear paths to success. Such a policy helps legitimize mental health concerns so that they are taken as seriously as physical injuries are under other occupational health and safety rules, and it also reduces the stigma of mental illness among employees, especially when bolstered by informational materials and programs that give troubled employees something to turn to. Likewise, it’s important for managers to receive training on how to properly handle mental health issues when they arise.

  2. Assess the degree of psychological safety

    Employers must evaluate their workplaces’ psychological safety (including what it’s costing in monetary terms). This step includes measuring absenteeism, looking at employee complaints, and weighing the amount of disability claims.

  3. Identify areas for improvement and take action

    Once issues of potential or even current mental health stressors, whether they’re procedural inefficiencies or bullies, have been identified, they need to be dealt with in a timely manner so as to send a signal to employees that their mental health is a priority of their organization.

  4. Reassess and improve the policy

    Once the mental health policy has been acted upon, it must be regularly re-evaluated to determine if was successful. If not, improvements must be made; if so, it should still be reviewed to ensure it remains successful.

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