Best Practice
April 15, 2014

Setting a standard for workplace health and safety

The National Voluntary Standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace sets the standard for maintaining psychologically healthy workplaces and reducing the growing costs of mental health. In the second of two parts, the authors provide an update on how the standard is taking hold and the action implications for public sector managers.

 

In May 2013, we wrote an article for CGE describing the accountability of federal managers for Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), noting the growing costs of OHS “losses.” In an expanded article, attention was given to the Cliff Heating Plant Explosion on Parliament Hill which resulted in the death of an employee, and the guilty plea of Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Both articles described the “national voluntary standard” for psychological health and safety in the workplace. This standard has been sponsored by the Canadian Commission on Mental Health (CCMH), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Bureau de normalisation du Quebec (BNQ).

In the standard, we noted: “This new voluntary standard provides a systematic approach to develop and sustain psychologically healthy and safe workplaces, including the identification of psychological hazards; the assessment and control of the risks associated with hazards that cannot be eliminated; the implementation of practices that support and promote psychological H&S; the growth of a culture that promotes psychological H&S; and the implementation of measurement and review systems to ensure sustainability.”

What does this mean? Stress is a part of life and a part of the workplace. We cannot create workplaces without stress. Indeed, some types of jobs involve very high levels of stress – where danger and trauma are common – occupations such as policing, fire-fighting, medicine, etc. In such cases, stress and impacts on mental health are endemic, and the key to organizational success is for managers to recognize stress and appropriately respond to it.

Management is critical. Where jobs are more stressful, management needs to respond in kind, with higher levels of supports, higher levels of training and more effective management. In more typical workplaces, stress is usually related to more fundamental factors. Organizational changes and staff reductions which are poorly planned and managed are a major source of stress in today’s environment, as are unreasonable workloads or poor organization of work, poor recognition of the worker’s situation, and poor organizational support. Such “typical” stress is not necessary and should be minimized by effective managers.

This article highlights the growing costs of mental health losses in the workplace and how investing in psychologically health workplaces and reducing stress or mitigating its impacts provides a good return-on-investment. We also report on our Canada-wide scan to see how the new standard is taking hold, and outline best practices for federal managers to respond to stress and minimize mental health-related losses. Finally, we address important questions of emerging legal requirements and potential liability. Following our conclusions, we have provided a web-link to resources which may aid managers, including links to training, surveys, and discussion of key issues such as incentive programs.

A Canada-wide environmental scan
In our research, managers were interviewed at all levels in the public sector as well as business, labour and NGOs across Canada. We concluded from these interviews that the standard is increasingly seen as a guide for efforts to create more psychologically healthy workplaces in Canada. This conclusion was reaffirmed by high Internet traffic we observed – downloading the Standard – and in related and greatly increasing demand for mental health training courses and support programs.

Our overall conclusions are provided below, along with references to useful resources and documents.

Improved psychological health and safety is needed to reduce OHS costs. The impacts on the general population and the costs associated with mental health are high and well documented. Over 20 percent of Canada’s working age population experience mental health issues during their lives which, in turn, will have an impact in their workplace. The annual cost to the Canadian economy is over $50 billion. Recently, concern has grown regarding the resulting high incidence and cost of sick and disability leave in the public service in particular. Indeed, costs resulting from sick or disability leave, much of which is attributed to mental health issues, now accounts for 10 percent or more of federal human resources budgets. An added cost is “presenteeism” – where workers attend at work, but with less than full productivity because of stress or depression. These costs represent a “drag” on government and managers’ resources to achieve their goals – resources are effectively reduced across the board. These costs can be mitigated by managers, who, working within existing budgets, can take steps to address this growing problem.

Two approaches can help reduce these OHS costs and potential liability.

One approach is to better deal with mental health problems which emerge in the workplace. Managers can promote a healthy workplace that is better able to respond to organizational and employee needs by creating a supportive environment, and making better use of wellness and employee assistance programs (EAPs). Managers don’t need to become “psychotherapists,” but they do need to be more aware of workplace behaviour, communicate openly with employees, and effectively manage the workplace to mitigate those at risk. This is mainly a matter of managers responding to mental health problems which employees may bring to work (family issues, etc.).

A second approach is to mitigate stress created by the workplace itself. This can be affected to a degree by reducing stress caused by the way that work is organized. Managers can do this by keeping workloads reasonable, applying teamwork to deal with “work overload crises,” maximizing respect for all employees, allowing for flexibility, clarifying roles, maximizing employees’ sense of value and security, and leading in a positive manner.

Best practices
In our review of recent research and our cross-Canada interviews to aid these two approaches, we identified 7 best practices which help in creating psychologically healthy workplaces:

1. Enshrine senior officials’ support for a psychologically healthy workplace. Many we spoke to suggested that a critical starting point is obtaining the support of an organization’s leadership (often the CEO or Deputy Minister) to act on this important issue. Ideally, this should be in a written memorandum from CEOs or deputy ministers to managers, affirming the goal and initiating an implementation plan. Spport from such senior executives and management bodies (boards of directors, councils) were found to be key to success of many agencies’ programs supporting psychological OHS. If you are a senior manager, you can get this “ball” rolling. If you are a middle manager, you can raise this topic with your manager(s), or with joint health and safety committees.

2. Assess the needs of your particular workplace. This usually requires a workplace survey to assess risks (such as stress, from work overload or related factors). Our interviews noted many cases in public agencies and corporations, where a survey of employees identified sources of stress – often reflected in management problems or an ineffective manager. In these instances survey results aided management change. In the federal sector, managers can easily access data identifying stress factors for virtually all work units from the most recent TBS Public Service Employee Survey. (This data can be accessed for most organizational units/levels by anyone with a gc.ca e-mail address. Data on executive health and stress factors can also be gleaned from the APEX Survey of Executives.)

3. Build the business case. This can be aided by an assessment showing the costs of stress related sick leave, disability costs, and (estimated) costs of presenteeism to the organization. This business case should also include costs such as grievances/disputes and can bring other managers “on-board.” Our research revealed a number of instances where junior managers “carried” the business case to senior management, bringing about significant changes. For example, in one university, a middle manager assembled a detailed business case and convinced senior management to act to improve the psychological health of the workplace. Key elements of the case included linking the issue of psychological health to data on existing and growing costs to the organization: sick leave, disability leave, along with workplace issues such as grievances and disputes.

As one stakeholder in this university reported, “Using a risk management approach, we were able to demonstrate an opportunity to save money in both sick and disability costs, and also labour relations. We were reminded that OHS efforts were successful in reducing accidents and injuries in the workplace. [But] the workplace now has less physical work so the new emphasis is on work involving the use of our brains/minds. [So] a focus on psychological health is thus important to ensuring a productive workplace.”

4. Train frontline supervisors and employees. With training on mental health, managers and supervisors are in a better position to assess employee performance issues, patterns of absence from work and more easily discuss workplace factors which may relate to mental health and job performance. Managers and supervisors will also be better able to refer employees to services such as EAP, counselling, etc. There are many practical courses (and videos) available. For example, the Mental Health Works training program of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has been used to generate an atmosphere where employees will “open up” and discuss mental health issues. As one manager in a major municipality in Ontario reported, “working with CMHA enabled the [municipality] to provide cost-effective and easily accessible training to all supervisors and most of staff. Training, including videos, could be handled in staff meetings and succeeded in influencing employee behaviour for the better. Training all staff led to a dramatic change in workplace support for psychological health and safety.”

5. Create a “seamless” effort. Work with EVERYONE – your HR professionals, Wellness Services, EAPs, bargaining units, and Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs) – to ensure use of the best “tools” and to aid broad buy-in. Many managers we spoke to – in public agencies and in industry – referred to the importance of aligning efforts to improve the psychological health of their workplaces with existing services such as EAP and wellness services. This is particularly important in view of tight budgets and the need to work within existing resources. A challenge is to broaden the scope of EAP/wellness services from a focus on individual employees and their mental health challenges, to one of organization questions such as workload, structure and maximally effective management.

6. Build the goal of psychological health and safety into accountability. Performance Management Agreements for managers should underline psychological health and safety goals. These should indicate what is expected of managers and how they are to be rewarded. The federal government currently requires performance agreements for all executives and has announced that all employees will have them as well. Such agreements provide an opportunity to better enshrine healthy behaviour as a goal for managers. This topic – incentives for good management performance in OHS generally – is widely researched by U.S. OSHA, and the European agency for health and safety (see our reference web page)

7. Review and enhance the policy environment. Ask your senior management to clarify expectations and duties with respect to psychological health and safety, and ask how psychological health and safety measures can be incorporated into your overall workplace OHS plan.

Applying these best practices will “harden” your organization to reduce the impacts of stress, an important issue all around, and also one with increasing legal implications.

Greater legal issues are on the horizon. While laws in Canada do not impose a requirement on employers to systematically tackle the issue of psychological health and safety, there does exist, within existing laws, significant and increasing potential for legal liability. Martin Shain describes the growing momentum of legal requirements for psychological health and safety as “the Perfect Legal Storm”: “The duty to provide and maintain a psychologically safe workplace is developing in different ways across Canadian jurisdictions and within various legislative and regulatory bodies, but a common thread is the increasing insistence of judges, arbitrators and commissioners upon more civil and respectful behaviour in the workplace and avoidance of conduct that a reasonable person should foresee as leading to mental injury. In addition to restricting management rights, adjudicators are also becoming more proactive in detailing how organizations must operate in order to meet this goal.” (The Shain Reports on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – A Summary.)

“General Duty” clauses found in health and safety legislation require that employers ensure that the health and safety at work of every person employed by the employer were enacted with the issue of physical health and safety in mind. However, Quebec has begun to use this clause to address psycho-social hazards as well. In addition, recent regulations aimed at the prevention of occupational violence and related factors such as bullying have opened doors for dealing with broader impacts on psychological health and safety of employees.

Recognition of “bullying, teasing or abusive behaviour” as workplace hazards is clearly a major step toward ensuring psychologically healthier workplaces. These behaviours are often linked to employee stress levels, underlining the link to mental health. They can have a direct negative impact on psychological health and can exacerbate the ill-health of employees who already feel stress from job insecurity or personal circumstances (e.g., poor family relationships).

A similar evolution appears to be taking place with respect to laws governing workers compensation. Compensation awards are increasingly being upheld by the courts for mental injuries resulting from chronic stress. Human Rights legislation is also relevant. As well, the “General Duty to Accommodate” provisions found in Human Rights legislation include the requirement to accommodate employees suffering from mental disorders.

Conclusions
There is a widespread move towards the principles of the new standard, and steps to create psychologically healthier workplaces. As well, a number of best practices have been identified. Federal executives and managers can learn from the experience of others and take action to improve the health of their workplaces. There is good evidence that these steps are not costly and the rewards are significant.

The standard has generated very strong interest all across Canada. This is evidenced by tens of thousands of downloads of the standard and related resources, increasing participation in webinars offered by the Mental Health Commission, information-sharing by professional associations and, importantly, moves by governments to respond to the standard within their public services, usually by implementing their own mental health initiatives. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Government Services has recently launched an initiative to provide training on mental health issues for staff across all Ontario government ministries.

BCWorksafe has also given a high level of attention to psychologically health workplaces (see their website). Similar moves are noted in Nova Scotia. As well, the standard has heightened attention to the creation of psychologically healthy workplaces in major corporations – innovative leaders such as Bell Canada, Great West Life and Lundbeck Canada. Organized labour has also launched many similar initiatives.

Such indicators are extremely positive, showing a growing effort to create more psychologically healthy workplaces. Even so, there remains a clear need for governments to clarify the duty of employers as regards guarding of psychological health and safety.

Managers might ask themselves, “how can I mobilize my organizational resources (peers in my work unit and HR, staff, JHSCs and so on) to address these matters. This is no small matter in a world of competing priorities and limited resources. A sustained response can be aided by higher level decisions in your organization to place priority on a psychologically healthy workplace. But you and your peers and superiors will not want to delay. In our research, we found that often, the emergence of a “champion,” and the development of serious organizational responses to mental health issues, was sparked by a tragedy – for example, the death or suicide of an employee. You won’t want to wait for that – rather you will want to mobilize your stakeholders and begin the planning, training and change now.
Useful resources and tools
Information on the business case for psychologically healthy workplaces; success stories and return-on-investment; incentives for managers’ OHS performance, and methods to assess stress in the workplace (for example, from the TBS Employee Survey) can be found at: www.spr.ca/psychologicallyhealthyworkplaces.pdf

Federal Public Service Employee Survey: www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pses-saff/index-eng.asp

APEX survey on federal executives wellbeing: www.apex.gc.ca

 

The authors wish to thank the many individuals and organizations from across Canada who contributed information to this article. For more information or to comment, please e-mail ted.harvey@spr.ca

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