Health and Safety
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Employers are learning the benefits of a psychologically safe work environment

By Joel Kranc


The workplace, like society in general, is ever evolving and changing. The challenge of incorporating a more diverse approach to hiring, for example, has gained traction over time.

Also, recognizing the needs of divergent generations in one workplace is a second example of workplace evolution. However, one of the more recent and perhaps most important issues facing the workplace today is the idea of providing a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

According to the report The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada:

“One of the largest evolutionary shifts that occurred in the landscape of workplace mental health over the last decade has been the 2013 release of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard). The Standard has provided a definition of what constitutes a psychologically safe system of work – a definition currently lacking in the law. The significance of the stated vision of the Standard lies in its call for the avoidance of reasonably foreseeable harm – through the establishment of a psychologically safe system of work – as the base level of care to which employers should aspire.”

The good news is that attitudinal shifts are occurring in the workplace and attempts are being made at HR and other levels to address the mental health needs of employees. However, with increased information, programs, recognition and perhaps more compassion in the workplace about mental health, HR still needs to motivate and encourage managers to change their behaviours at the ground level. Policies are one thing, but practice is another.

At the recent Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) 2018 Annual Conference and Trade Show, a panel session, “Developing Psychologically Safe Leaders,” addressed those very issues. The panel was made up of Sarah Jenner, national manager, Mindful Employer Canada; Elina Fonariov, senior human resources administrator at Participation House; Linda Brogden, an occupational health nurse with the University of Waterloo; and Christine McGregor, human resources advisor at Community & Home Assistance to Seniors.

McGregor noted that while the goal of the organization is to train and equip managers with the tools to incorporate wellness policies into the workplace, the road can still be an uphill battle. There are examples, she said, where discussion can be had about things like accommodation or other mental health issues and, in her words, “I have a manager say, ‘Why do we have to deal with this?’ And so, it’s not unusual to have those archaic values still come up. However, as we progressed in the sessions and applied the tools, the individual who had expressed [reservation] said, ‘Well, I can do that.’”

In other words, McGregor explained that education in the right context and with the right tools could change the minds of managers who are sceptical or “old-school thinkers.” Even within sessions at the workplace, she said, attitudes can change so long as the tools are presented properly.

Fonariov noted that her goals to undertake this effort were also to help managers improve their ability to deal with the challenges and situations that occur as a result of mental health issues in the workplace.

“I try to emphasize to managers that we need to think of our staff and their mental health and safety as a priority so they can provide good care to residents, which is our mission,” she said. Managers can oftentimes be too focused on day-to-day operations, she added, and it was important to also re-focus their attention towards the mental health of staff and not just of clients or residents.

In the case of the University of Waterloo, Brogden said there is a two-fold mental health problem. There is the fact that students are going to faculty with issues that require solutions, but it is the faculty themselves that have to both learn how to address these issues and also be able to take care of their own issues.

“If you can’t train your employees to look after themselves and be healthy and understand what their tools and resources are for themselves, then how can you expect them to be there to support a student who is having difficulties?”

To do that, Brogden used the resources of Mindful Employer. She said that it was difficult at first, but once faculty understood why the tools were being introduced, it became an easier task. She started with senior faculty/staff.

“They’re hungry for information and so we got buy-in right away when we wanted to do this,” she said. She added that employees were interested in helping others, but also mindful of not putting themselves at too much risk by asking too many personal questions. Rather than having all the answers, learning about the tools helped them realize that listening was just as, if not more, important than having solutions and gave staff the confidence to listen and know how to help.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” said Brogden. “We have a start and we are seeing change.”

Over time, panellists, who oftentimes started programs alone, eventually received buy-in from senior management on the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace. Sessions became more frequent and discussions became more open. The consensus at the panel was that pushing this kind of agenda in the workplace required encouragement and a tone set by the most senior levels of an organization. Support, at all levels, is the key to a successful program.



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