Selling the psychological safety standard (Guest Commentary)

The University of Waterloo shares its experience

I saw the first draft of the Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in 2011 when working with Mary Ann Baynton, one of the members of the technical committee who developed the standard. As the occupational health nurse at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, I immediately felt the content would be beneficial in our workplace.  

In the spring of 2012, the university was asked to join six other organizations from across Canada to become early adopters of the standard. These early adopters included the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), CIBC, Bell Canada, Great West Life Assurance Company (GWL) and Nova Scotia Public Services (NSPS). I was very interested in what the standard could do to enhance the quality of our workplace for all employees.

Initially, I spoke with senior management and while they agreed this was necessary and worthwhile, there were more pressing issues that commanded attention at that time. Disappointed, I realized I had presented this request from the perspective of my own passion — not with the data, facts and figures needed to support implementation. 

I regrouped and came forward again with the information required to get buy-in. I was successful and the university began the journey toward a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. 

Katrina Di Gravio, from the organizational human development department, joined with me to champion the movement. We spoke with others whose day-to-day work would benefit from implementation of the standard, including conflict management and human rights officers, staff and faculty associations, the organizational human development team, HR and our union. 

We gathered data such as absenteeism rates and numbers of absences related to a mental illness or workplace issues (such as relationships, workload and management). We looked at organization policies, procedures and guidelines and discovered that while some needed revision, most just needed tweaking. We realized that while we had things written down on paper, we needed to get the message out to all employees and begin “walking the talk.”

We understood the value of strengthening psychological health and safety in the workplace:

•corporate responsibility (it is the right thing to do)

•a plan to protect our most important resources — employees

•enhanced cost-effectiveness — decreased sick leave and LTD benefits

•increased organizational recruitment and retention 

•improved risk management and decreased risk of legal or regulatory sanctions

•psychological health being everyone’s responsibility, from the top down and the bottom up.  

In January 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the Canadian Standard Association (CSA) and the Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (BNQ) released the National Standard of Canada Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace: Prevention, promotion and guidance to staged implementation.  

 That same month, the university announced it would be an early adopter and later that year, the University of Waterloo Strategic Plan was released. One of the eight themes included the robust employer-employee relationship. As this theme was developed, psychological health and safety in the workplace was identified as an important part of this theme.

Occupational health, organizational human development and HR began providing education sessions for departments, outlining what the psychosocial factors looked like and the impact on the workplace. Very early on, we recognized that every department has different needs so we work with department members to determine the department’s top three factors needing change or implementation.  

So far, we have:

•provided education to influential groups across campus  

•created a psychological and healthy workplace website 

•partnered with Great West Life to create videos for each of the psychosocial factors 

•provided educational sessions to departments and individuals

•provided three interactive educational sessions during our annual staff conference reviewing the 13 factors (the foundation of the standard) and their impact

•provided educational sessions to reduce stigma

•worked with departments to implement the top three factors in their department

•written articles for MOODs Magazine and Canadian Nurse about the university and psychological health and safety

•helped to create a Community of Practice of Canadian Universities, through which all members are all committed to implementing psychological health and safety in their workplaces

•taken every opportunity to spread the word: brown bag lunches, return-to-work meetings, presentations, one-on-one discussions and training sessions for employees.

With a commitment to the strategic plan, specifically the theme “robust employer-employee,” the commitment and leadership are there. We continue to promote psychological health and safety in the workplace at every turn. This includes working with Excellence Canada and its Healthy Workplace Strategies, participating in the Not Myself Today Campaign, piloting Mindful Managers and other educational initiatives for employees.

We look forward to continued delivery of the message about psychological health and safety in the workplace and the continued support of both management and the employees. We realize we have embarked on a journey that will need continued monitoring to be sure we continue on the right path for success.  

Linda Brogden is a registered nurse and occupational health manager at the University of Waterloo. This article was prepared with the assistance of Katrina Di Gravio, director of organizational human development at the university. For more information, visit 

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