Health and Safety
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Ted Harvey and Neil Gavigan, with assistance from Holly Bennett

Workplace stress, including fatigue and anger emerging from labour-management disputes, can be concerns for all employers.

Such stresses have been identified as contributing factors to incidents such as the April 2014 workplace shootings in Nanaimo, B.C., and the Lac Mégantic train derailment.

Canada’s Voluntary National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety (the Standard), released in 2012, provided a response to such issues, changing the landscape of occupational health and safety (OHS). What progress has been made since its introduction?

In mid-2014, SPR Associates began a review of the impact of the new Standard. The organization consulted with over 100 key individuals from business and unions in all regions and industries, governments, academics and mental health practitioners. They also examined best practices to improve the psychological health of workplaces, and reviewed Canadian and international research.

The goal was to assess progress with the Standard and identify future directions – including how HR managers can lead in building psychologically healthy workplaces. In particular, the researchers became interested in workplace stress as a significant factor in OHS injuries and costs.

Since 2012, thousands of organizations have downloaded the Standard. There have also been increasing demands for workplace mental health training programs, and growing media attention to these topics.

Impacts of workplace stress

Today, workplace stress, bullying, harassment and violence are key issues for Canadians. Awareness of the cost of workplace stress and related mental health issues grows steadily. In addition to the cost in suffering when workers become ill, are injured or pass away, the financial costs of workplace stress to individuals, employers and society are staggering. Costs to the Canadian economy are over $51 billion annually, and workplace stress is a central factor, according to Statistics Canada.

Employee disability leave or time off due to stress is a major component, as is the cost of recruiting and training replacements when needed. Stress is also a major factor in injuries, and with injuries come private insurance costs and workers’ compensation.

Moreover, a growing body of research points to workplace stress as an important trigger factor in workplace accidents, injuries and violence, highlighting it further as a major OHS issue.

Given its high cost, managing and reducing stress should be a priority for ensuring good quality workplaces and productivity. Good HR and OHS practices are key to this effort.

Reducing OHS losses: The missing link

For over 100 years, governments, employers, unions and others have worked to reduce OHS losses, resulting in highly evolved laws, regulations, inspections, training programs and workplace best practices. Yet, we still see relatively constant OHS costs, and an increasing rate of workplace deaths in Canada over 20 years (from 756 to 977 annually). Why should this be so?

Laws are essential – but not enough. OHS losses remain unchanged largely because laws and policies have not affected the culture of work. There needs to be a change in workplace culture, spurred by management and HR.

Re-inventing workplaces

Where jobs are more stressful, management needs to communicate better, support employees and attempt to reduce stress. In more typical workplaces, stress can be related to factors such as organizational changes and staff reductions, especially if poorly managed. Unreasonable workloads, overtime (a key stress factor), poor organization of work and poor support for workers can exacerbate stress.

Two approaches can reduce stress, OHS injuries and costs:

• Address employees’ mental health problems. Managers can better respond to mental health issues employees bring to work (such as family issues, etc.) by creating a supportive environment and making better use of wellness and employee assistance programs (EAPs).
• Mitigate stress created by the workplace. This is accomplished by keeping workloads reasonable, controlling overtime and related stress, maximizing respect for all employees, allowing for flexibility, maximizing employees' sense of value and security and (when necessary) implementing lay-offs fairly.

Best practices for healthier workplaces

The research identified seven best practices to create psychologically healthy, less stressful workplaces. These all represent areas where HR managers can lead:

1. Obtain executive support. Support from senior executives and management bodies was found to be key to the success of many programs. This could be a written memorandum from CEOs to managers and staff, affirming the goal of a psychologically healthy workplace, with an implementation plan.

2. Assess workplace needs. This could involve a workplace survey (using tools such as the Mental Injuries Toolkit or Great West Life's Guarding Minds at Work Survey to assess risks such as work overload, overtime, excessive work pressure or other factors.

3. Build the business case for a psychologically healthy workplace. The research revealed many instances where junior managers "carried" the business case to senior management – showing the costs of sick leave, disability costs and estimated costs of presenteeism – bringing about significant changes even in large organizations.

4. Train managers and employees. With training on mental health, managers and supervisors are better able to assess employee performance issues and patterns of absence from work, discuss workplace factors relating to stress, mental health and job performance and refer employees to their EAPs.

5. Create a "seamless" effort. Workplaces should include everyone in these efforts – HR professionals, wellness services, EAPs, bargaining units and joint health and safety committees (JHSCs) – to ensure broad buy-in and full use of resources. A key challenge is to broaden the scope of EAP/wellness services from a focus on the needs of individual employees to address organizational issues – workload, overtime and communications.

6. Build the goal of better psychological OHS into accountability.
Performance management agreements for managers should include psychological OHS goals. These should indicate what is expected of managers in regards to stress reduction and how they will be rewarded for success. This should include general workplace practices, and also sensitive situations such as handling layoffs in a fair and transparent manner.

7. Review and enhance the policy environment. Supervisors and HR managers should ask senior management to clarify expectations with respect to psychological OHS, and how success of related OHS plans can be monitored.

Legal liability

Many believe that existing laws carry great potential for legal liability, and thus change through the courts or administrative tribunals. Martin Shain, one of Canada's leading experts on these matters, describes the growing requirements for psychological OHS as “the perfect legal storm.”

He says the general duty provisions in OHS legislation require employers to ensure the health and safety of all employees. Recent adjudication has indicated this should apply to psychological OHS as well as physical safety. Quebec has already begun to use these provisions to address psychosocial hazards. In addition, recent Canada-wide regulations aimed at preventing occupational violence have opened doors for dealing with broader aspects of psychological OHS. A similar evolution appears to be taking place with workers’ compensation. Compensation awards are increasingly being upheld by the courts for mental injuries resulting from chronic stress. The obligation to deal with stress appears to be coming fast at employers.

The benefits of building psychologically healthier workplaces will be seen not only in the reduction of OHS losses, but in a corresponding increase in productivity – since reduction of stress in workplaces has been proven by two decades of research to aid the profit performance of businesses and the efficiency of other types of organizations. Improvements in related legislation and HR programs thus become a “win-win” for business.

Dr. Ted Harvey is president of SPR Associates. Neil Gavigan (formerly of Labour Canada) is senior consultant at SPR and Holly Bennett is senior associate at SPR.

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