Health and Safety

Prevention is the best cure – and it all starts with dialogue, joint communication and mapping out goals

By Joel Kranc

Mental health issues can affect anyone in any workplace at any time. Perhaps one of the more stressful workplace settings, however, is within the airline industry. That’s where Sari Sairanen, current director of health and safety at Unifor, worked in the early 2000s when her employer, Air Canada, was dealing with bankruptcy protection.

As a union leader in the call centre, she was still tasked with instilling confidence in the workforce even though the situation was quite precarious.

“Every two weeks, I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that calls would come in and people would say, ‘My cheque bounced,’” she said.

After working with third party companies and the airline itself, it was determined that communication was the key to reducing stress.

“You may not like the news you are getting, but at least you are getting the information and you are able to make decisions and choices, and feel that you are part of the process,” she said.

Sairanen adds that “jointness,” such as joint programs in wellness or programs in the collective agreement or a women’s advocacy program, for example, are the keys to success in the workplace. It starts with joint committees and conversations between departments, she says.

Primary prevention programs such as workplace demands and organizational structures that need to be tackled by human resources should be tackled jointly. It’s also a good place, she adds, to use best practices like the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) – workplaces must be not only physically safe but also psychologically safe.

The first of its kind in the world, the voluntary guidelines of the Standard provide tools and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work. Launched in January 2013, it has been adopted by many companies across the country, internationally and across organizations of all sectors and sizes. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website, adopting the Standard can help HR professionals deal with issues of productivity, financial performance, risk management, organizational recruitment and employee retention.

Besides the Standard, Sairanen lists apps that can be used to promote mental wellness in the workplace – for example, The Workplace Stress Measurement app, developed by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. The app poses questions that can be used by HR or employees to help highlight wellness as a foundation of workplace harmony. But Sairanen stressed the need for joint cooperation no matter what tools are used.

“It all happens as a team. Our most successful programs have always been joint programs – joint programs that recognize all of our contributions and our obligations, as well…and when you have joint acceptance of programs and procedures in the workplace, the relationship that the employer has with its employees, and the relationship the union has with its members, are complemented and blend together,” she said.

What would Rogers do?

At Rogers Communications, the conversation around wellness in the workplace started relatively slowly. Dr. David Satok, corporate medical director at Rogers Communications, was tasked with dealing with Rogers’ wellness program, and doing it on a shoestring (or nonexistent) budget. And even after getting sponsorship money from outside parties and building websites and portals, wellness was still not at the forefront of the company agenda. Satok noted that after his department moved from an ROI model of wellness towards an EVO (employee value offering) model, the lightbulbs went on because having to deal with returns was taken out of the equation.

“When we started talking about culture and attraction and retention of employees, and then we started collaborating on it and got HR partners such as health and safety and disability management, we were able to create a working group and steering committee, and eventually an executive champion,” said Satok.

He also pointed to the Standard as something that allowed his department to map its progress by providing services to employees.

“At least when we mapped it over a three-year period, we could see the gaps and map where things fit in,” he said.

Goals versus objectives

Getting to the point where Rogers is today starts with strategic goals of the organization, according to Mary Ann Baynton, principal of consulting firm Mary Ann Baynton & Associates. There are objectives, supposedly already agreed upon by company leadership. Her advice for HR professionals is to take goals and plans of wellness and mental health in the workplace, and link them to the strategic objectives of the company as a whole rather than starting something new and adding “stress and pressure to our already full plates.”

Even in companies where the strategic objectives are higher sales, for example, Baynton said higher levels of emotional intelligence is directly linked to higher sales.

“If you propose that you will work to raise the emotional intelligence of the entire sales force,” said Baynton, “they’ll see the dollar signs but you know that it also improves psychological health and safety in the workplace.”

She stressed that most change management policies can be viewed through the lens of psychological health and safety, which helps support people.

“Those little things can make a difference in how your workforce manages change,” she said.

In the grand scheme, and specifically in HR circles, issue management can be handled by implementing tools and opening joint discussions by changing the attitude of how people view stress in the workplace, and turning issues into solutions by getting them to talk about what needs to be different.