New Canadian standard aims to break down stigma on mental illness

Voluntary standard includes tools, information for employers on dealing with psychological health and safety

The newly launched national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace will help eliminate the stigma on mental illness and empower workers with mental health problems to speak up about their condition, proponents of the new standard said.

“We now understand that mental illness is not a supernatural phenomenon and it’s not a character flaw,” said federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt. Raitt was among the guest speakers in Toronto at the official launch of Canada’s first national standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace.

The standard provides tools for employers to develop and implement policies and programs to achieve psychologically healthy and safe workplaces.

The stigma around mental illness has contributed to general unwillingness of people to talk about mental illness for fear of negative repercussions. The new national standard on workplace psychological health and safety is a step towards eliminating the stigma, said Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), a national labour union based in Ottawa representing more than three million workers across Canada.

“Seven million Canadians will experience mental health problems this year,” Georgetti said. “I think (the standard) is a great start to take that stigma away, let people acknowledge their problem and then deal with them without fear of repercussion.”

Taking away the stigma and allowing employees to speak up will also provide an opportunity for employers to acknowledge there is an issue and recognize their role in providing workplace support, said George Cope, president and CEO of Bell Canada, a corporate supporter of the development of the mental health standard.

“Management training is absolutely critical to this. We have got to deal with stigma. If the stigma goes away, then we deal with implementation,” Cope said.

Taking on the issue of mental health is not only the right thing to do, but also makes good business sense for employers, he said. It is estimated that mental health problems cost the Canadian economy more than $50 billion annually and it is now the leading cause of long-term disability among workers.

If not addressed, mental health issues will cost Canadian businesses $198 billion in lost productivity over the next 30 years, according to a 2011 study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).

Cope called on corporate leaders to “step up to this challenge” and start to work towards achieving a mentally safe and healthy workplace by using the standard.

“Government has done their part; businesses now has to do its part,” Cope said.

What’s in the standard?

The new standard provides a systematic approach to developing and maintaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. It includes tools and information on:

• identification of psychological hazards in the workplace
• assessment and control of risks in the workplace associated with hazards that cannot be eliminated, such as reasonable job demands and stressors due to organizational change
• implementation of practices that support and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace
• growing a culture that promotes psychological health and safety
• implementing measurement and review systems to ensure sustainability.

“This (standard) is a Canadian first,” said Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the MHCC. “In fact, this voluntary standard is the first of its kind in the world.”

More than 800 comments were received during public consultations for the development of the standard, according to Bradley. It builds on existing structures and policies that organizations may already have in place. The standard was designed in a way it can be used by any type of organization regardless of its size, she said.

The standard was developed jointly and through public consultations led by the MHCC, the Canadian Standards Association and Quebec standards development body, Bureau de Normalisation du Quebec (BNQ). Bell Canada and Winnipeg-based financial services firm Great-West Life provided financial contributions to fund the development of the standard. The Government of Canada, through Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, also provided funding.

The Canadian government provided more than $366,000 to support the development of the standard, according to Raitt.

“It’s these kinds of partnerships that show how important mental health is to a variety of interests in this country,” she said.

Last year, the labour minister spoke publicly for the first time about her own experience with post-partum depression back in 2004, when she was president and CEO of the Toronto Port Authority.

“People who suffer from mental illness are afraid — they’re afraid they are going to be treated differently, they’re afraid they’re not going to be as respected if they reveal they have a problem, and some may even be afraid of losing their jobs,” she said.

The new Canadian standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace is a voluntary standard and available for free. Raitt said the plan is to keep the adoption of the standard on a voluntary basis.

“The Labour Code already has anti-violence regulation and what I found with employers is a lot of them are struggling with how to deal with (mental illness) and how to put their policies in place because they are scrambling for information… now they have a great voluntary standard that they can use for free for the first five years.

“But we’re interested in it remaining voluntary and that’s the basis in which all parties agreed,” Raitt explained.

Labour unions may have a slightly different plan, however. When asked whether labour groups would be calling for compliance through legislation, the CLC’s Georgetti said while keeping the standard voluntary is a good start, “this standard will, at some point in time, become incorporated into occupational health and safety laws and workers’ compensation.”

“It is a good start — of course, we wish it to be compulsory,” he said, but stressed getting buy-in and ensuring that workplaces are promoting the psychological health and safety of workers will be the next steps.

The new standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace is available for free download through theCSA Group, BNQ and MHCC websites.

Mari-Len DeGuzman is editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter.

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