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Cloudy with a chance of damages

If human resources professionals had the tools of meteorologists, this is what the forecast might look like

By Todd Humber (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

“There’s a big storm brewing off the employer coast.” Well, that’s the way we might talk if HR departments had the forecasting tools of meteorologists at their disposal.

The weather radar of the HR world would show plenty of storms churning in the ocean, preparing to make landfall. There are the hurricanes we’ve been tracking well, such as the demographic crunch and labour shortage expected to hit as the baby boomers start retiring en masse next year.

But, to the keen eye, the Doppler radar is showing a small blip — a tropical depression if you will — that is already lashing the workplace and looks determined to form into a significant hurricane. The long-term forecast is troubling.

That’s probably enough with the weather metaphors, but there’s a reason we called mental health issues in the workplace a “perfect legal storm” in one of the cover stories in the Nov. 1 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

Legislators are increasingly putting the onus and liability on employers to ensure workplaces are free of psychological harassment. The bar for what constitutes harassment is being lowered and courts are awarding a lot more money — an increase of as much as 700 per cent in the last five years. 

And mental health is no longer taboo. The “suck it up” attitude of yore is disappearing along with the stigma, replaced by a more compassionate bent from all parties. 

From an employer’s perspective, it’s daunting. Mental health is a disability worthy of accommodation, but it’s also notoriously tough to assess. A supervisor can see a worker has a broken leg, but mental health issues aren’t as obvious. Accommodating a worker with a sore shoulder is simple, and the timelines for recovery are predictable. But a worker suffering from depression? It’s a completely different ball game.

And, unfortunately, there will be a minority who try to fake mental health problems in an effort to get some paid time off. Employers and insurance companies on the hook for compensation will often suspect a worker is malingering.

Employers have to meet the mental health challenge head on. Bosses who bully subordinates have to be dealt with — verbally abusing a worker is as intolerable as striking one. Staff need training to recognize the warning signs of mental health issues, and resources should be made available to employees.

Employee assistance programs, once thought of as a nice-to-have, have become almost compulsory. Workers need a confidential outlet.

But remember — any investment in employees’ mental health will pay dividends, and not just in terms of avoiding costly lawsuits. The mindset of being asked to do more with less, which has always existed but was exacerbated by the recession, won’t be changing anytime soon.

What has to change is complacency on this front. The cost to employers, in terms of lost productivity and punitive damages from courts, are far too high to ignore.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management, and its family of publications. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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