Canada’s national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace provides employers with benchmarks they can measure themselves against. Would making it mandatory improve employer uptake, or impose unnecessary and duplicate regulations?
Brian Gottheil, human resource advisor and lawyer at Bernardi Human Resource Law LLP:
The national standard helps employers proactively assess and improve their performance against 13 factors identified by the Mental Health Commission of Canada to promote a psychologically healthy workplace.
Ultimately, the standard establishes systems that ensure decision-making across an organization takes these factors into account. It’s a simple tool that can boost productivity and engagement, decrease turnover and absenteeism and improve personnel management. It also helps to reduce benefits costs by tackling workplace mental health, the source of about 70 per cent of disability claims costs.
The beauty of the standard is that these same 13 factors — which include employee engagement, appropriate recognition and rewards and civility and respect, among others — are already the hallmarks of great management, with its associated business advantages.
In 2014, as part of a case study research project, our law firm was one of the first employers in Canada to adopt the standard. Even as a small business with fewer than 20 employees, we found the standard easy to implement and immediately helpful. Our workplace already had a positive culture, but the standard helped us target and address areas of improvement. It also boosted mental-health awareness among staff and helped them take steps on their own to improve their daily work experience.
Since the standard is so helpful, why must we make it mandatory? Won’t employers adopt it on their own? Indeed, many employers across Canada have done just that, but it hasn’t been enough. Whether due to lack of prioritization, inertia or incorrect perceptions that it’s onerous, the standard has yet to be adopted at scale.
Making it mandatory would change that. By requiring employers to implement the standard, we could quickly expand its reach, for the benefit of employees and employers alike.
Simone Ostrowski, employment lawyer at Whitten & Lublin LLP:
While it’s laudable that Canada now has a national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace, it would be unwise for the standard to be mandatory for all employers.
First and foremost, there’s no one-size-fits-all mental-health policy that can work effectively for every company across Canada. No two employers are the same. Some companies have four employees and some have 40,000. Some are office-based while others are predicated on physical labour. Employers should be permitted to decide which psychological health and safety practices work best for them.
Similarly, if the standard was mandatory, smaller employers would struggle to meet the copious rules it sets out — 75 pages’ worth, to be exact. Creating a comprehensive national standard looks positive on paper, but if employers can’t realistically comply, it isn’t useful and simply creates more paperwork.
Finally, it isn’t clear that the standard, as currently drafted, provides anything different than current occupational health and safety laws. For example, Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act already sets out numerous requirements for employers to meet. They have to create various workplace violence and harassment policies and programs, and engage in regular assessments and investigations. Many Ontario employers aren’t even aware of their statutory obligations to create workplace health and safety policies or to have a health and safety representative (depending on the size of the workplace).
To implement another set of mandatory rules that arguably duplicates employers’ existing legal requirements — which, in many cases, aren’t being met — would be excessive. It’s more effective to focus on a few important rules regarding psychological health that can actually be followed by companies and enforced by the appropriate governmental body.
Kelsey Rolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.