The National Standard: What employers need to know

Mental health is an issue that affects all employers, large and small. While there is no question that keeping employees healthy and productive is smart business, there are even more compelling reasons—evident in recent court settlements—for protecting employees’ psychological health and safety.

According to a 2009 report, Stress at Work, Mental Injury and the Law in Canada by Dr. Martin Shain, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Canada’s legal system is clearly putting more onus on employers to provide a workplace that is not only physically safe but also psychologically safe. This trend is also evident in the new National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, launched in January 2013 by the Canadian Standards Association and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec. Championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the standard is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources to protect mental health in the workplace.

While implementing the standard is easier than many employers might think, the challenge is often a lack of awareness of and attention to workplace mental health. This is especially the case among smaller employers, whose limited resources are often fully focused on day-to-day operations.

A recent survey by Empire Life of its small to mid-size plan administrators highlights this challenge. While 72% reported that their organizations have the means to identify patterns of negative conduct (e.g., managers and others who lose their temper and shout, ridicule, humiliate, exhibit discriminatory attitudes/ conduct or avoid dealing with conflict), only 64% reported having the means to resolve such situations promptly, effectively and sustainably. More importantly, only 50% said their managers are capable of skilfully handling difficult conversations or removing barriers to communication. And just 43% said their managers are capable of developing action plans to address difficult situations—and even fewer are able to follow through on those plans.

Clearly, managers’ difficulty in handling challenging workplace situations presents potentially serious issues for employers. The Stress at Work report makes it clear that managers who, for example, impose unreasonable demands, prevent workers from being able to control their work, or fail to recognize workers’ rights or achievements contribute to common workplace conditions such as depression, anxiety and burnout. The impact on employee engagement, loyalty, absenteeism and productivity is well known; the legal and financial risks are only now beginning to become evident.

There are a number of steps that employers—even the smaller ones—can take to begin promoting a psychologically safe workplace (see “The 4 Bs of Psychological Safety at Work” below). First and most important is to talk to managers about the new standard and their role in implementing it in the organization. But this doesn’t necessarily mean having to invest in a lot of added resources. Often, resources are already available—through the employer’s employee assistance program, for example—to give managers coaching and guidance to build the skills they need.

Ultimately, it’s about dialogue among managers and employees about how to work together for a psychologically healthy workplace. Once everyone starts talking about the standard, they are, in effect, beginning to apply it.

The 4 Bs of Psychological Safety at Work
By Martin Shain, SJD

1. BE AWARE Employers should assume that the contract of employment includes an implied promise of a psychologically safe system of work that requires a floor standard of fair, civil and respectful conduct. This is true in both unionized and non-unionized workplaces. The rule in practice appears to be that employers retain the duty to provide a psychologically safe system of work throughout all phases of the employment relationship, including times when employees may be under the temporary supervision of third-party agents such as insurers, benefits administrators, employee assistance programs, return-to-work specialists and contracted medical experts.

2. BE FAIR Accept that the foundation of everyday fairness in the workplace is the basic legal requirement to recognize and accommodate up to a reasonable standard the legitimate interests and rights of others. Accept that, in order to achieve this floor standard of fairness, it is necessary for those who manage and supervise others to have basic interpersonal skills that include the ability to actively listen, facilitate vital conversations and elicit information in a careful manner.

3. BE CAREFUL The golden rule of the psychologically safe workplace is to avoid doing psychological harm to another person where a reasonable person in the same situation could or should have seen it coming. In other words, avoid reasonably foreseeable harm (which roughly means harm that a panel of 12 ordinary people from your workplace would have seen coming).

Be on the lookout for signs of conflict or other interpersonal tension among employees, and between employees and their managers or supervisors. Act upon it when you see it. The responsibility to be vigilant and proactive in this regard is a key element of the duty to provide a psychologically safe workplace.

Janet Jackson is vice-president, group marketing, with Empire Life.

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