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By Mary Ann Baynton, M.S.W., R.S.W.


Working together for psychological health and safety

It’s been two years since the release of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard). The voluntary standard provides a framework to help guide employers as they work toward psychologically safe and healthy work environments.


The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is now one year into a three-year national case study research project to determine how Canadian employers are using and working toward the Standard. Results will help in the development of practices, programs and educational tools and processes to help more organizations adopt the Standard and promote psychologically healthy workplaces.

While participation in the case study is closed, monthly updates and participant questions and answers are posted publicly and are available to everyone on the MHCC website.


The following are insights, successes and challenges from some of the HR professionals taking part in this study.


Getting started
Cathy Weaver, vice-president of human resources for Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life, says it was a natural fit for the companies to support the development of the Standard and to become involved with the case study.


“We have supported research and projects in mental health in the workplace for over a decade, including the establishment of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in 2007, so we welcome this innovative collaboration,” she said. “MHCC has done an excellent job in bringing the case study participants together so that we can learn from one another and share our experiences more broadly for the benefit of other organizations.” When the Standard was first announced, the HR community expressed concerns about the resources and time that would be needed to implement psychological health and safety in the workplace.

Some also worried that if their organization was going to proclaim to be a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, there would be a perception that employees didn’t have to work as hard or that management couldn’t ever be firm.


“Psychological health and safety is not about making sure work conditions are always ‘nice’ for employees,” said Weaver. “Rather, it is about maximizing the capability and potential of all employees by supporting them to do their best work.”


Yvone Defreitas, manager, HR at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), shares that CCOHS recognized the value of adopting the Standard – both as an employer and as part of their mandate as a health and safety organization to take a comprehensive approach to workplace mental health. It established a Mental Health at Work team, comprised of a cross-section of staff based on their interest in contributing.


“From an HR perspective, we understand that there’s legislation that tells us we have to keep our employees healthy and safe. Having this technical expertise in place is helping to create programs and policies that are all encompassing,” she said. “This includes gaining an understanding that employees’ concerns aren’t always physical or visible.”


Jennifer Lombardo-Seib, corporate wellness specialist for the Regional Municipality of York, works closely with a newly-established Psychological Health and Safety Advisory Committee whose membership will change based on needs and priorities.


“Right now a lot of the groundwork is being done in HR, but there’s also a level of change involved that made it important to have other employees including the unions on board,” she said.


Lombardo-Seib says engaging unions alongside highly visible senior leadership support is making implementation more manageable across York Region. A wellness website features the CAO’s commitment to psychological health and wellbeing, as well as a broad range of resources that are available through the region’s new Mindful Health Initiative.


For those worried about time and resources, Lombardo-Seib advises using the Standard, which provides a framework with excellent free resources to help organizations get started. “It really is about taking one step at a time,” she says. “The reality in most organizations is that there are always a lot of programs on the go, and many could be interwoven with others, including those related to health, safety and wellness or other HR programs.” Carol Sinclair, director of HR and labour relations at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, says that she and her organization’s psychological health and safety tactics team are excited by the opportunity to advance organization practice of a critical mental health initiative in the workplace.


“We have two years of data from our engagement surveys which provided some good information to start with,” she said.


Sinclair offers advice for organizations with “resource-constrained environments” that are looking to adopt the Standard: “Share the data that you’re able to pull together. For our organization, this includes data on safety and labour fronts, from absenteeism rates, benefits utilization data and long-term disability claims to employee assistance program statistics and extended healthcare claims. We’re gathering this quantitative data along with qualitative data from employee engagement surveys and cross referencing it all against the 13 psychosocial factors that are known to impact psychological health at work.”


The surveys are available at no cost from Psychosocial factors are elements that impact employees’ psychological responses to work and work conditions, potentially causing psychological health problems. They include factors such as psychological support, organizational culture, civility and respect, clear leadership and expectations and work/life balance.

In reviewing the data, Sinclair says, “a clear picture is emerging” to help guide their planning activities.


Sharing the responsibility
Barbara Mildon, vice president, Professional Practice, HR and Research and chief nurse executive at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, encourages employees who are tasked with the responsibility of implementing psychological health and safety to reach out to peers to achieve a broader view.


“Working in this way is helping to add rigour to our implementation, processes and to our outcome evaluation,” she said, emphasizing the need to be strategic and results-focused. “We are absolutely motivated to achieve results, and not in just in a token way. We want the results to be robust and meaningful.”


Drawing on CCOHS’s experience and total health mandate, Defreitas challenges the mindset that ensuring psychologically healthy and safe workplaces is an “HR thing.” She said, “Workplace health and safety is everyone’s responsibility, only now it includes mental health.”

Mildon agrees: “It all comes back to that notion of responsibility and accountability, which we need to have in place on a day-to-day basis.”


Successes and challenges
Mildon says her organization has successfully mapped each of the psychosocial factors outlined in the Standard against its most recent employee engagement survey results, which has helped them determine the areas on which they need to focus.

She reaffirms the importance of having the support of senior leadership.


“The project gets direct oversight from our senior management team, which includes directors and vice-presidents,” she said. “That means that it is discussed at a high level and decisions are made collectively, with CEO support.”


Defreitas says the CCOHS team had worried they might run into “survey fatigue” when they used Guarding Minds @ Work early in the implementation phase of the Standard as a means of assessing current workplace psychological health.


“We managed to carve out a two-week window for the survey and saw an 83 per cent response rate,” said Defreitas. “Clearly this is important to our employees. This has opened up a healthy dialogue and we’re seeing increased employee engagement and decreased social stigma associated with mental health issues.”


Supporting the journey
The HR professionals who were interviewed agree that sharing these findings is an invaluable step in helping other organizations either get started or continue on the journey toward psychologically healthy and safe workplaces.

Sinclair and her colleagues all express their appreciation for being involved in the case study.


“This takes implementation of the Standard to a whole new level,” she said. “It’s setting the path for others to succeed.”

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