National psychological standard ‘evolution’ of health and safety

Sections on culture, basic human needs could prove challenging
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/08/2013

At the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), excellent patient care is linked back to great staff care. And as a mental health and addiction teaching hospital, it’s important to walk the talk when it comes to its 2,800 employees, according to Christine Burych, director of organizational development in Toronto.

“It’s really important that our employees feel like we are creating an environment to take care of their psychological safety,” she said. “When your staff are fully engaged and productive and feel valued about being at work, and they’re making a contribution, then the outcome to that is you’re going to have better quality of care for your clients.”

CAMH is one of a few employers that has announced it will adopt the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s new National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Unveiled on Jan. 16 and developed collaboratively with the CSA Group and Bureau de normalisation du Québec, the standard provides a systemic approach to developing a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, including identifying hazards, assessing and controlling risks, growing a culture to promote a healthy, safe workplace and implementing measurement and review systems to ensure sustainability.

“We’ve done a very good job in looking at occupational safety but this is now looking at the psychological health and safety of people,” said Doug Morton, director of government relations at the CSA Group in Mississauga, Ont. “There’s still such a stigma attached to mental illness and psychological issues — this is a first step in trying to deal with those issues, at least from a workplace point of view.”

The new standard is an evolution of the way we think about things — and it is challenging, said Shane Todd, a labour and employment lawyer at Heenan Blaikie in Toronto.

“It stretches our understanding of what health and safety in the workplace are, moving from an understanding of health and safety as the absence of hazards… towards health and safety as a complete state of mental, physical well-being. It really is an evolution in the way we have to think about things.”

The most common question from employers concerns enforceability, said Todd.

“The standard itself is voluntary but standards by the CSA are considered to be best practices in their respective areas and they’re well-regarded and can potentially have an impact on employers’ legal obligations.”

For one, the standard could be specifically incorporated into occupational health and safety regulations, either provincially or federally, as has been done with other standards, he said.

It could also be enforceable under the general duty cause, as each piece of occupational health and safety legislation requires employers to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers.

“So some adjudicators have said that when you’re looking at what a reasonable precaution is in the circumstances, one of the things the employer should do is look at outside credible resources that have established useful guidelines that could be applied in the workplace. And they specifically reference the CSA standards, so it really could be used to inform that.”

Suddenly there’s a benchmark or reference point out there, said Merv Gilbert, adjunct professor and senior consultant at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addictions (CARMHA) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

“Various kinds of employment standards, rulings, grievances, labour relations issues will be citing the standard and saying, ‘You could have done this or you should have done this,’ so I think the obligatory component or strong encouragement to adopt the standard will come.”

The other pressing concern for employers is implementation, said Todd, adding the final version has annexes with useful resources to help employers, along with an action guide outlining six steps — policy, planning, promotion, prevention, process and persistence.

But there are still areas that may prove easier said than done for employers, such as an annex outlining the basic human needs employers should consider, such as self-esteem and self-worth, or chronic hazards that could negatively affect employees, such as a lack of respect and civility, a negative or demanding culture, an excessive workload or the absence of an employee assistance program (EAP).

“One of the challenges you have here is identifying and controlling these new psychological health and safety risk factors and we have to adjust the lens that we’re using to identify things. The definition in the standard is very broad — anything that might cause psychological harm to a worker,” said Todd.

“We’re not just looking at acute incidents where someone might break into the workplace and have a gun or violent incidents. The standard really looks at chronic psycho-social risks that might occur over time. For instance, the impact of organizational culture or leadership, compensation and benefits, the impact that those things have over time on employees, their self-esteem, how they feel about themselves and really the impact that chronic stress can have over time. So it really is an interesting and challenging development for employers.”

The language used in the standard is appropriate to psychological health, said Gilbert.

“On the other hand, there is this implication that suddenly the employer is sort of like big mother or big father, responsible for the physical, spiritual, psychological health and well-being… for all the employees and that’s one that I think’s a bit daunting.”

Also a challenge could be the section around leadership roles that “lead and influence organizational culture in a positive way,” said Todd.

“When you need to make these cultural changes that the standard’s requiring, you’re talking about wholesale, long-term changes and it is a journey and not a single step.”

But the standard does recognize that staged implementation is best, said Todd. And to some extent, employers may have bits and pieces already in place, such as a respectful workplace policy.

The intent is not to be prescriptive in that specific a sense because there is a need to respect the decision-making of organizations as they make their own choices, said Gilbert.

“It’s basically setting a framework, if you will, and some guidelines or expectations about where to go to.”

For organizations that lack policies or guidelines in this area, the standard and annexes should be helpful, said Morton.

“Small businesses, for example, aren’t going to have nearly the kind of complexity around these kinds of issues that a large business with many employees will have, so they can pick and choose what elements would be particularly relevant to the issues that they and their employees are potentially facing.”

The new standard aligns closely with psychological health and safety initiatives already underway at CAMH, so it will be integrated into existing frameworks. And as a first step, the organization will fully digest the standard and take a holistic view, said Burych.

“We really want to be able to see where we’re meeting the standard and where we also need to focus,” she said. “Once we have an idea of where the gaps are for us… that’s where we’re going to be putting our attention and creating strategy over the next year or so.”

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