HR
May 7, 2012

Protecting the mind at work

You know you have to protect your employees from bodily harm in the workplace, but did you know you have to protect their minds too?

Proposed changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act introduced by the Ontario government in April 2009 under Bill 168 impose new obligations on employers with respect to creating workplaces that are free from violence and harassment. This act includes harm to an individual’s psychological well-being within the definition of harassment.

Mental health and mental illness are emerging as issues of public concern, in Canada and internationally. Globally, mental health disorders are the fastest growing cause of disability. One in five Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime.
   
Mental health and mental illness

Just as everyone has physical health, everyone also has mental health. Mental health and mental illness are not mutually exclusive; you can be mentally healthy with a mental illness, just as you can have poor mental health without having a mental illness. The three most significant determinants of mental health are social inclusion, freedom from discrimination and violence, and access to economic resources. All three of these factors are inextricably intertwined with employment.  

The Ontario Government’s recent tabling of Bill 168 represents a giant step forward in promoting workplace mental health. When Bill 168 passes into law, employers will be responsible for developing a policy and program framework to prevent workplace violence and harassment. This direction is intended to give workers the right to remove themselves from situations if they have reason to believe that they are at risk of workplace violence. The law will also require employers to take reasonable precautions to protect an employee who is experiencing domestic violence.

Mental illness and violence

There is a common belief that people with mental illness are more violent than the rest of the population. However, Dr. Heather Stuart, co-founder and co-Chair of the Scientific Section on Stigma and Mental Disorders for the World Psychiatric Association, released data showing that only two percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. In actuality, people with mental illness are significantly more likely to be victims of violence. Protection from workplace violence would benefit all employees, including those with a mental illness.  

Workplace violence is typically linked to unresolved workplace harassment. It is because of situations like these that Mental Health Works, a program of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), strongly recommends managers never tolerate violent behaviours in the workplace, including aggression, harassment or threats of violence. During management training workshops, Mental Health Works facilitators stress that violent or aggressive behaviours create mentally unhealthy and psychologically unsafe work environments filled with fear and anxiety.

Negative effects of psychologically unsafe workplaces
High levels of stress and anxiety can have negative effects on people experiencing them, those around them and the organization as a whole. Dr. Martin Shain, a leading researcher in workplace mental health and psychological safety, says that in addition to the mental consequences of stress there are many physical consequences, including heart problems, occupational injuries, cancers and substance abuse. You can think of chronic stress and anxiety as “repetitive strain injury to the brain” because without addressing the problem, the stress will wear everyone down. Mental health problems can often lead to physical safety issues because of diminished capacity for concentration, problem solving and communication. Taking a hands-off approach to workplace mental health can lead to fiscal hardship resulting from lower productivity and higher rates of injury, staff turnover, absenteeism, and ‘presenteeism’ (i.e., when employees come to work and are unproductive).

When work environments deteriorate and individuals are left to support and fend for themselves, the entire organization suffers. Organizations end up paying higher insurance premiums, increased recruitment, training and salary costs and potentially legal fees and reparations if the employer is found liable for an employee’s health problems. Paying needlessly for an unhealthy work environment can be extremely damaging to the workplace culture and the budget.

False sense of increased productivity

Although mentally unsafe work environments can temporarily increase productivity and boost work performance, this process is driven by fears of being disciplined, bullied, harassed – or subject to workplace violence. Over time, productivity and relationships – both work-related and personal – begin to suffer. Prolonged workplace stress can lead many employees to disengage from their work and ultimately reduce productivity.  

Implementation of policies and practices in your organization that promote and protect employees’ mental health is essential to psychological safety. Findings from a recent study found a significantly higher prevalence of anxiety and depression in employees who consistently work more than 49 hours per week. Maybe a policy limiting the number of over-time hours an employee is allowed to work is the answer.

So…how do we get started?  
     
The requirements outlined in Bill 168 provide a good framework for starting:

  • Create written workplace violence and harassment policies;
  • Train employees on such policies;
  • Undertake risk assessments to determine the possibility or prevalence of workplace violence or harassment;
  • Disclose incidents of workplace violence and harassment with the joint health and safety committee and any risk assessments undertaken;
  • Provide ways for employees to report instances or risks of workplace violence and harassment;
  • Discipline employees for not following workplace violence and harassment policies;
  • Offer a confidential employee assistance program to allow employees subjected to workplace violence or harassment, or those with personal problems, to seek help;
  • Ensure that proper security measures are in place at the workplace to protect workers from members of the public or customers; and
  • Keep detailed records of any workplace violence or harassment, investigation or work refusal.

The long-term goal for public sector and private sector employers is to develop a comprehensive healthy workplace approach – one that addresses healthy lifestyle practices, organizational culture and occupational health and safety. Assistance is available through Mental Health Works (www.mentalhealthworks.ca), National Quality Institute (www.nqi.ca) or the Ontario Healthy Workplace Coalition (www.ohwc.ca).

Kendal Bradley is with the Ontario division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

 

Resources to support employers with workplace mental health promotion
There’s good news!  Canadian employers now have somewhere to turn for guidance in creating a mentally healthy workplace. CMHA Ontario has partnered with the Health Communication Unit of the University of Toronto to create a Workplace Mental Health resource. This information pack will be launched in March 2010 and will provide practical information, strategies and tools for individuals and organizations to address mental health. This free resource will be available at www.ontario.cmha.ca and www.thcu.ca/workplace. The Guarding Minds @ Work (www.guardingmindsatwork.

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