National psychological standard leading to mixed results: Survey

Workplaces safer, workers more knowledgeable – but many people still unaware of guidelines
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/15/2017

Four years after the creation of a national standard encouraging mental health in the workplace, results are mixed when it comes to the actual impact.

While the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace has made workers more knowledgeable about mental health and has led to safer work settings, there are also many workers who are unaware it exists, found a survey by Ipsos, commissioned by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

The standard is a voluntary set of guidelines promoting psychological health in the workplace. Unveiled in 2013 by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, it serves as a road map for employers, helping them to identify, assess and measure potential hazards.

Only five per cent of employees working for an organization implementing the standard say their workplace is psychologically unhealthy, found the survey of 5,000 people, compared to 13 per cent of those working for companies that have not implemented it.

And employees with depression at organizations that are implementing the standard are missing less time (7.4 days per year) from work compared to the average employee with depression (12.5 days).

Employees at workplaces implementing the standard are also less likely than those without the standard to express concern over psychological support in the workplace (10 per cent versus three per cent), said the study.

“We have absolute evidence now of the value of using the standard as a framework,” said Mary Ann Baynton, program director at the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in Waterdown, Ont.

“Implementing psychological health and safety initiatives are not something that’s ‘nice to do.’ Now, if you’re a smart businessperson, you’re going to do this. If you can maximize your employee energy, then you can maximize your organizational success.”

Many companies used to think — and some still do — that mental health in the workplace is a “nice-to-have,” that there isn’t really a business case that’s strong enough for the employer being involved in the mental health space, said Sharone Bar-David, a Toronto-based respectful workplace expert.

“But I think what these results prove unequivocally is that it pays off on the business side,” she said.

Additionally, even the language choice around the standard has helped move mental health prevention, care and awareness into the occupational health and safety realm, said Diana Vissers, an occupational health consultant in Maple Ridge, B.C.

“To me, that is the biggest impact of the standard,” she said. “It’s a really important tool and something Canada should be really proud of. We’re the first country to produce it, so we are setting, literally, the standard for the world.”

It appears the standard is having a positive impact in the workplace,  said Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs in Toronto, “with employees in organizations who are implementing the standard being much less likely to describe their workplace as one that is concerning from a psychological health and safety standpoint.”

And while the standard could be simply one of many factors at work within individual organizations, the statistical evidence remains “significant,” according to Simpson.

Workers at organizations implementing the standard missed five fewer days on average per year due to depression, said Baynton.

Alongside that, all 13 psychosocial factors identified in the standard — from psychological support to protection of physical safety — also score higher in organizations attempting to adhere to the standard.

“It’s actually really encouraging,” said Bar-David. “(But) it’s way too early to rest on our laurels. The trend is moving nicely, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Areas of concern

However, one of the standard’s founders said much more needs to be done to ensure the document incurs the success desired upon its inception.

“I understand the need to be celebratory about the standard but, at the same time, I think we need to be a little bit more dispassionate about it,” said Martin Shain, a workplace mental health expert in Caledon, Ont. “We better give it a bit more teeth, which it doesn’t have.”

“We need to make it a higher priority. If this issue is as serious as everybody says it is, then we need to allocate more resources to it and think about regulation.”

The survey also found just six per cent of respondents said they are aware their organization is implementing the standard, and only 12 per cent know the standard exists.

That’s a concern, said Shain, especially since it was intended to be a participatory philosophy.

“If people don’t know that the standard is being implemented, it probably isn’t being,” he said.

“In order for the standard to be implemented fully, everybody in the workplace has to understand what’s being done and why it’s being done. The future of this standard depends on it being seen and implemented as an occupational health and safety standard with full HR collaboration, of course.”

People seem to know more about this topic than they used to but it’s still a relatively small proportion who are aware of the standard at all, said Simpson, “so there’s obviously work to be done in ensuring that the awareness of the standard is widespread.”

But Bar-David dismissed the idea employees need to be aware of the standard’s implementation.

“What’s relevant to the employees is what they are seeing in terms of programs and support in the workplace,” she said. “The standard is more a tool for the professionals behind the scenes.”

Advice for HR

HR need not feel overwhelmed at the perceived complexity or enormity of the standard, said Bar-David, noting the document can be implemented in portions, and at any pace desired.

“The standard offers a very coherent and cohesive framework, but you can also do piecemeal,” she said. “When you take action on mental health, you will see results.”

Because the standard pushes philosophies designed to overhaul corporate strategy and mental health management, employers may be intimidated initially.

“Many employers see it as a bit unwieldy,” said Vissers.

“It can appear at first to be quite technical. It can feel like a big project. (But) the research and evidence is clear that the standard is a way to put mental health care right into everyday practices in your workplace. Mental health care makes good business sense.”

HR practitioners under the pressure of budgetary constraints may need to convince senior leadership of the standard’s value, she said.

“It’s not legislated right now,” said Vissers. “Adopting occupational health and safety-legislated requirements is a bit more of a stick approach. This is more of a carrot.”

Psychological health and safety is basically the way people interact on a daily basis so it involves management at a significantly greater level than physical health and safety in terms of their behaviour, said Baynton. “Management is often in the office, not on the shop floor.”

Going forward

Still, to push the urgency of the mental health conversation even further, legislation of at least the assessment portion of the standard may be required, according to Shain.

“It is a major step forward in the evolution of relationships in the workplace, in terms of how people treat one another,” he said. “But the problem is that for all the downloads and publicity about it, it’s not being implemented in enough organizations.”

“We really need to move the agenda ahead in terms of thinking about regulation of at least part of the standard.”

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