Mental health issues more prevalent at work

National standard helping employers create mentally healthy workplace, but stigma remains: Panellists

As a police officer in Ontario, Brian Knowler was the first responder to a serious collision nine years ago. The driver, Knowler’s best friend from university, died in his arms while he was performing CPR.

“My immediate way of coping was to go home and drink. It was a very old school, suck it up, deal with it part of the job,” said Knowler.

He buried the incident for about eight years but it came “roaring back” last year when a similar incident occurred, and Knowler was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, he is a staff sergeant and he spends time trying to educate other officers about mental health.

Knowler shared his story at a Canadian HR Reporter roundtable on mental health in the workplace, held in partnership with Sun Life, in Toronto in April.

While mental health issues are becoming more prevalent in today’s workplace, there is still a stigma around them, according to the panellists.

“It isn’t something that’s black and white; it’s not something employees can see,” said Drew Sousa, manager of employee health services at the City of Mississauga in Ontario. “We’re looking at trying to provide awareness and promotion and trying to get people to understand ‘This could happen to you,’ and that’s the key message.”

To combat the stigma, employers need to look at what kind of work environment they are encouraging. Employers need to establish a culture where employees respect and value each other, said Sue Brown, principal at Mercer in Toronto.

“And whenever there’s an indication that’s not happening, action needs to be taken, so there’s a zero tolerance for any conduct that is mentally injurious to anyone in the workplace and there is the support that’s required to make sure the organization operates within a mentally healthy culture.”

To help employers establish this type of culture, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released a National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace in January. The standard provides a road map for employers, including identifying hazards, assessing and controlling risks, and implementing measurement and review systems.

The standard helps employers look at workplace issues through a different lens, said Sari Sairanen, national health and safety director at the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union in Toronto.

“We’re very familiar with physical hazards but what about the psychological, mental hazards that are happening in the workplace? (The standard) opens up that door to start looking at the psycho-social factors,” she said.

While the standard is currently voluntary, there is a general regard that legislators and regulators have towards these types of standards and they tend to creep into legislative requirements, said Cheryl Edwards, partner at Heenan Blaikie law firm in Toronto.

But employers may be challenged by how to tackle the standard with the existing structures at a workplace.

“People are saying, ‘Do we actually start anew and create a whole new system or piggyback on our existing policies and procedures and try to make a whole respectful workplace system or psychological health and safety system that rolls in all of our policies?’” said Edwards.

Before they even start adopting the standard, employers need to figure out who is going to be involved and how they are going to integrate all the little pieces in the workplace, she said. As a best practice, HR, health and safety, senior management and the union (if applicable) should all be involved.

It’s extremely important for every workplace to have a champion around the standard who will spearhead the planning process, said Ian Arnold, former chair of the Workforce Advisory Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada in Ottawa.

“It’s really important to do this planning right and move forward right because the planning tells you where you want to go with respect to what you bring into the workplace to address the areas of need,” he said. “Then it becomes a continuous improvement cycle.”

Having buy-in at the supervisory and management level is also critical, said Knowler. While the police force he worked for had an excellent employee assistance program (EAP) and other resources in place, his supervisor didn’t care and responded to Knowler’s incident by saying, “Oh you’re tough. You go home, have a few belts and go to bed.”

“A corporation could have the best groundwork, best programming in place, but if the people in a position to implement it don’t, then it’s just some useless paper,” he said.

At Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont., managers and supervisors are very supportive of the company’s initiatives around psychological health and safety, said Carey Uyeda, disability services manager.

“They are recognizing the additional cost of having people away from work, so they are the big drivers and are putting money forward to support the mental health initiatives, and we have additional training for the management group and additional programs to get that started,” he said.

Managers at Fallsview receive training on how to recognize employees at risk, look for warning signs and educate employees on the supports available to them.

If employers do not properly address mental health, they may face several negative implications. For example, if an employee has been subject to treatment that is not an expected, fundamental condition of his employment, he may take the position he has been constructively dismissed, said Edwards.

“That has happened to a very large number of employees now, particularly those who have suffered not only mistreatment but suffered a mental breakdown in the workplace. So they have lost their mental health, lost their job and lost future earnings because their life has crumbled all around them,” she said.

Another issue is workers’ compensation entitlements are increasing. The bar on when a worker can say he has experienced chronic stress or traumatic mental stress has been lowering, so the entitlement to lost wages has been lowering, said Edwards.

Employers need to start seriously considering the holistic health of employees because the world of work is evolving, said Sairanen.

“It’s not just that physical safety aspect but their psychological well-being as well, and ensuring as they come home at the end of the day, they are home — and not just physically but psychologically as well.”

Meet the panellists 

Roundtable on mental health

In April, Canadian HR Reporter managing editor Todd Humber moderated a roundtable discussion on the new National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. On the panel were:

• Cheryl Edwards, partner, Heenan Blaikie

• Sari Sairanen, national health and safety director, CAW

• Carey Uyeda, disability services manager, Fallsview Casino Resort

• Ian Arnold, former chair of the Workforce Advisory Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and a consultant

• Sue Brown, principal, Mercer

• Brian Knowler, staff sergeant at an Ontario police service

• Drew Sousa, manager, employee health services, City of Mississauga.


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