National standard on mental health not a burden (Guest commentary)

‘Adaptable, flexible’ voluntary standard coming later this year provides resources, can help reduce employer costs and risks and improve organizational performance

When the proposed National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is published in the fall of 2012, it will be voluntary.

The standard — championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), in collaboration with CSA Standards and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec — is not intended to be just another burden on employers. Rather, it recognizes that by fostering a psychologically safe and healthy workplace, costs and risks can be reduced and organizational performance can be improved.

Funding for the standard is coming from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Bell, according to MHCC.

The standard seeks to provide a comprehensive framework for embedding psychological health and safety in existing work processes and policies. It’s intended to be flexible and adaptable for unique workplace needs.

Meeting the terms of the standard will be one way to stem increasing costs associated with stress, conflict and low morale.

The standard includes a plethora of references to credible resources in the public domain so employers can keep implementation costs manageable. And it will provide HR with one more tool to create and sustain productive and respectful workplaces.

What is a psychologically safe workplace?

Employers are facing a changing legal landscape, as described in Martin Shain’s reports for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (see There is a trend toward envisioning a duty to provide a psychologically safe workplace as an implicit term of the employment contract, he says.

The law is imposing increasingly restrictive limitations on management rights by requiring that the organization and management of work do not lead to lasting harm to employee mental health that would impact an employee’s ability to function at work or outside of work, says Shain.

“Workplace psychological safety is demonstrated when workers feel able to put themselves on the line, ask questions, seek feedback, report mistakes and problems or propose a new idea without fearing negative consequences to themselves, their job or their career,” according to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health (, a freely available resource supported by the virtual Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

What is a psychologically healthy workplace?

A psychologically healthy workplace promotes emotional well-being and presents minimal risk to employee mental health. Psychological health consists of our ability to think, feel and behave in a manner that enables us to perform.

It stands to reason a workplace that pays attention to employees’ psychological health, in addition to their physical health, will be more successful.

The new standard headlines 13 workplace factors familiar to HR professionals that impact psychological safety and health:

• psychological support

• organizational culture

• clear leadership and expectations

• civility and respect

• psychological job fit

• growth and development

• recognition and reward

• involvement and influence

• workload management

• engagement

• balance

• psychological protection

• supportive physical environment.

Making positive use of these factors in workplace relations is central to meeting the objective of creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Clearly, HR professionals have a key role to play in launching this initiative.

Creating and sustaining a psychologically safe and healthy workplace is everyone’s responsibility. The standard explains to senior management what is in their control and what they can do to help meet the challenge. And it requires commitment not only from leadership but front-line employees, including employee associations and unions.

Standard recognizes different needs of employers

The standard is intended to be aspirational and recognize that different employers will have different situations and needs.

For some, the initial focus might be on improving the psychological safety of the workplace. Others might already have a psychologically safe workplace and focus on improving workplace psychological health.

Achieving a psychologically safe and healthy workplace is not an easy or short-term initiative and the standard provides a process by which employers can work towards achieving this goal over time, according to their needs. provides a variety of information and resources, available in the public domain.

Complying with the proposed standard involves a process, various approaches and a series of conversations with employees toward reaching a mutually beneficial goal.

Continual improvement is built into the approach and implementation resources are provided.

The National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace provides a helpful framework for employers, enabling organizations to achieve measurable results, enhance their bottom lines and improve service delivery.

Mary Ann Baynton is program director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.


Webinar on mental health in the workplace

Join Canadian HR Reporter and the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) on May 3, 2012, for a special webinar on maintaining a psychologically safe workplace featuring Mary Ann Baynton of Great-West Life’s Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace and Martin Shain of the Neighbour at Work Centre. The webinar runs from noon to 1 p.m. EST. Cost is $69 plus tax. Click here for more information.

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