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Visions Journal

Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

Where do we go from here?

Merv Gilbert, PhD

Reprinted from the How’s Work? Life in the Workplace issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (3), pp. 5-7

Portrait of author, Merv Gilbert

Love and work are key to positive psychological health. Indeed, good work gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, a reason to get up in the morning and get out of the house, structure to our daily activities, a way to gain new knowledge and skills, an opportunity to contribute to something larger than ourselves and a place to meet new people and make new friendships. Oh, and it also provides an income. This is why it’s so important for individuals with chronic mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions to have meaningful work, with supports as needed.

But for too many people work can be a source of stress and distress that may trigger a psychological disorder or worsen an existing condition. This may be a result of the nature of the work itself, such as unreasonable time or performance expectations, or critical incidents at work, particularly among people in certain occupations, such as first responders, health care providers or military personnel.

All too often though, workplace stress starts in interactions with others, including supervisors, colleagues, clients and customers. Stressful interactions can range from repeated rudeness and incivility to outright harassment, bullying or discrimination. Regardless of the source of work stress, the result can be worker absenteeism (or presenteeism: impaired functioning while still at work), psychological disorder and disability. This, in turn, has a negative impact on the productivity, finances and public image of organizations.

Taking steps to create psychologically safe workplaces

Over the last couple of decades there has been increased recognition that employees’ psychological health and safety (PH&S) deserves the same level of attention as their physical well-being. This is reflected in updates in legislation to require employers to investigate and address bullying and harassment. For example, recently, WorkSafeBC, the provincial agency responsible for worker safety, updated its criteria for mental disorder claims. Psychological injuries in certain high-risk occupations are now presumed to be the result of work unless there is evidence otherwise.1

One of the most significant changes has been the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s introduction in 2013 of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The Standard outlines steps employers should take to create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace that “promotes employees’ psychological well-being and does not harm employee mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways.”2 The Standard requires employers to commit to creating such an environment by:

  • assessing workplace risks
  • addressing risks
  • evaluating whether these efforts worked
  • monitoring and making improvements

These expectations are encouraging, but the real evidence of a change in workplace psychological health and safety is in the extent to which it is apparent in day-to-day organizational practices and culture. Most of us know whether an organization is psychologically safe and healthy based on our own experience, be it as an employee, volunteer, customer or client. The psychologically safe workplace is the one where employees are clearly engaged in their work, proud of their organization and helpful and supportive to others.

As a result of greater awareness of the benefits of creating and sustaining a psychologically healthy work environment, provincial agencies, such as WorkSafeBC, are now offering an increasing number of freely available resources for employers and employees, while advocacy bodies, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, raise awareness of the importance of PH&S, reduce stigma and address bullying and harassment.

Many employers are also altering the supports and programs they offer. Some of these include:

  • modified extended benefits that cover psychological services
  • online self-care and mindfulness programs
  • improved disability management for persons off work due to a psychological disability
  • more input for workers into how and when they do their work

Safer workplaces in BC

Many organizations have already come up with creative and effective strategies to address particular problems. A splendid example of this is the Brookhaven Care Centre in Kelowna, a residential unit for persons with various neurocognitive disorders. Like many health care settings, Brookhaven struggled to ensure adequate staffing, most notably during school holidays or breaks, when relief staff weren’t available because they needed to care for their children. This, in turn, placed an extra workload burden on caregivers and impacted services for residents.

One of Brookhaven’s staff members came up with an innovative solution. On days when there was a school break, staff were invited to bring their children into the centre, where they were appropriately paired up with one of the residents. This allowed kids to see what their parents actually did for a living, allowed staff to keep an eye on their children and provided residents and children with a unique cross-generational experience. The “Little Brooks” program was a big success, and relief staff lined up to work on those days. There was some concern about liability, but Brookhaven leaders managed the issue effectively. This program cost nothing, and the benefits to staff, residents and participating children were priceless.

Some years ago, I participated in an American Psychological Association initiative that recognized psychologically healthy workplaces. With encouragement from the BC Psychological Association, Brookhaven applied for and received an award for BC and went on to be recognized for best practices at the North American level.

A few years later one of Brookhaven’s leaders reached out and informed me that the program had expanded to other residential settings. Some of the children involved in Little Brooks had “aged out” but, on their own initiative, continued to serve as volunteers as part of “Big Brooks.” Some of these youth have even gone on to work in healthcare. Brookhaven has had to pause its Brooks programs due to the pandemic, but they’ll be back. Change is possible.

This issue of Visions, “How’s Work? Life in the Workplace,” is focused on workplace psychological health and safety and describes some of the challenges facing workers and methods for addressing them. These are particularly relevant, given the impact of the pandemic and the pandemic response, which have disrupted work and workers in previously unimaginable ways. While the pandemic has unquestionably created additional stress and confusion for workers and workplaces, it may also encourage organizations to be creative in building psychologically safe and healthy workplaces and encourage workers to expect this. These efforts continue.

About the author

Merv has worked as a psychologist for over 40 years in clinical, management and academic roles. For the last few decades, he has focused on conducting research and creating resources to support psychological health and safety in the workplace. Merv is a director of Vancouver Psych Safety Consulting, which supports organizations in fostering psychologically healthy workers and workplaces

  1. WorkSafe BC. (2020). Frequently asked questions: Psychological disorder claims.
  2. Canadian Standards Association. (2013). Psychological health and safety in the workplace: prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation.

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