The question of who is responsible for the psychological health of employees has become a hot topic as of late for a number of reasons. The first is that Workers’ Compensation Boards in some provinces are becoming more willing to accept mental health claims than they were in the past. Saskatchewan and British Columbia are already seeing the affects of this, and Alberta employers expect to see a similar policy recommended by the upcoming WCB Review Panel report. A re-interpretation of the general obligations of employers under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act has also led to over 200 OHS Officer assignments related to worker mental health complaints in just 7 months. About 70% of these resulted in orders, most of which were bullying related. The Mental Health Commission of Canada would remind us, however, that mental health should have been on employer radar a long time ago. They report staggering costs associated with staff depression and anxiety, advising that 30-50% of short and long-term disability claims in the country are a result of mental illness. Associated absenteeism, “presenteeism” and worker turnover are estimated to cost Canadian employers more than $6 billion in lost productivity, and the total cost to the country’s economy is estimated at $50 billion every year. It’s clear that we have a problem. What isn’t as apparent is what we can do about it. While the powers-that-be work on developing resources to help employers deal with this complex issue, we advise employers to get a head start on things by introducing the following practices into your own workplace.
Start by having the conversation. Introduce a bullying policy, and be willing to take action should workplace bullying be reported. Take time to talk about workplace mental health issues at team meetings and corporate events. Make it clear that leadership is interested, willing to listen, and has a plan to deal with worker mental health issues. Provide training on workplace harassment and how to deal with bullying behavior from other staff, clients and members of the public. And be careful not to ignore the signs that a worker is unhappy or stressed. Choose an appropriate time and place and encourage them to talk to about what is going on. Ensure confidentiality, reassure them of your support, and develop a plan to help them.
Any HR professional worthy of the title will also advise you to actively engage with employees and make authentic efforts to create a positive work environment. The return on investment needed to keep staff happy is one of the worst kept secrets in the business world. Happy workers perform better, are more productive, and are far less likely to move on to a different employer. They are also less inclined to take sick days and stress leave.
For employees with more complicated mental health issues that are not easily addressed by workplace programs and training, access to medical services should be made available through confidential Employee Assistance Programs. Part of the conversation you will be having on this topic should be to ensure awareness of these resources, and encourage staff to use them when needed.
Employers are beginning to recognize the importance of creating psychologically healthy workplaces, and the benefits maintaining all aspects of staff health and safety. For more information on this topic, contact the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) for a free download of Z1003-13, and stay tuned for three best practice documents soon to be published by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety.