As cultural awareness of mental health issues has increased, so have the boundaries for acceptable behavior shifted. After decades of activism promoting positive change, psychological abuse is no longer acceptable in homes, schools, stores and other public spaces. But behind the closed doors of private businesses, “horrible bosses” can still run toxic workplaces, perhaps in the misguided belief that “doing things the way it has always been done” must be the best way to do business. It’s not.
Psychologically unsafe workplaces are inefficient and costly. Mental injury and illness costs businesses and the economy billions of dollars per year. That is a lot to pay for the delusion that a strong manager must, for example, drive employees with harassment, bullying and the loading of mental stress. Supported by mental health research, the occupational health and safety industry has recognized this. To further strengthen arguments promoting psychologically safe workplaces, Canada now has a health and safety standard aimed at establishing a baseline for behavior in the workplace.
Released January 16, 2013 by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the new standard “Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace” is the first of its kind in the world. It is primarily a “safety first” manual for preventing mental injury in the workplace.
The spirit of the Standard is that mental health issues affect everyone, it is not an “us versus them” problem. The prevention of mental injury in the workplace presents an opportunity to start a common ground conversation between employers and workers. By adopting the Standard, employers can look forward to lower costs, greater productivity and loyalty. Workers will benefit from fewer workplace mental health injuries, which will improve wider aspects of their lives. So the Standard is pro-worker, but not anti-employer.
The heart of the Standard is the Psychological Health and Safety Management System (PHSMS): establishing and maintaining an internal organizational process for assessing hazards and making changes with the aim of eliminating or reducing their impact. A PHSMS is not focused on assessing and managing workers’ mental illness, although providing information, support and accommodation may become part of the process. Nor is it about assessing leadership shortcomings, although it is certainly about identifying the challenges leaders face, then providing them with training for managing psychological health and safety in their workplace.
The Standard is voluntary until an organization fails to get it right. At that moment, there are seven areas of law which Canadian courts consider. And the courts are increasingly making awards to persons who have suffered mental injury while at work. Adopting the Standard protects organizations from costly and morale-dampening litigation. While at the same time, reducing the burden of mental injury and illness in the workplace. Now that the Standard is here to provide clear guidance, there are no good business reasons not to promote psychologically safe workplaces.
This shift, to include psychological hazards as part of occupational health and safety concerns, pushes the boundaries for acceptable social behavior to exclude bullying from all workplaces. “Presumably, that includes public workplaces such as government organizations.” What will political discourse look like when aggressive bullying tactics between political opponents are no longer acceptable and may even be subject to litigation? Who will be elected to public office when everyone agrees on a baseline for civility and respectful, when everyone recognizes lying and manipulation for the purposes of gaining power in a workplace?
We have only just started talking about Canada’s new Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace standard, but it may have far-reaching effects. It is available free of charge from the Canadian Standards Association.
Submitted by Lorraine Cindy Krysac
Ph.D. (Physics), C.of Q. (Construction Electrician), Mental Health First Aider
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