A new guide to psychological safety and health
Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), pp. 22,23
Workplace risks that can lead to physical illness and injury in employees have been accepted as an employer responsibility. Protection against these risks is built into health and safety laws and policies. However, the same has not been true for psychosocial risk factors. Psychosocial risk factors are those aspects of work that impact an employee’s mental health and safety. Psychological disorders are not easy to see in the way that, for example, a broken arm is which is why they are often referred to as “invisible.” But the impact of psychological disorders is anything but invisible.
Psychological disorders are associated with workplace conflict, turnover, accidents and injuries. They are also associated with a reduced ability to tap into the knowledge and leadership provided by experienced employees. Workplace factors don’t cause psychological disorders; but they can trigger and worsen a mental health condition.
Workplace factors can also create supportive environments that can help employees heal. These environments are known as ‘psychologically safe’ workplaces. This is a fairly new term in the area of occupational health and employment law. A psychologically safe workplace promotes quick identification and treatment of mental illness. It also lessens the impact of the illness on the person’s life. Psychologically safe workplaces don’t harm employee mental health in careless or intentional ways.
There is a growing need to identify and address mental health risks in the workplace. There have been recent changes in law and policy at the provincial and federal levels. There have also been court rulings that hold employers accountable for the psychological health of staff, most recently in Quebec1 and Saskatchewan.2 These changes have placed increasing responsibility on businesses to deal with psychosocial risk factors.
While Canadian employers are aware of the prevalence and impact of mental illness, many are not sure about how to act. How do employers figure out what psychosocial risks exist in their workplaces? How do they know what programs, policies or services will best address those risks? How do they know whether a new or existing intervention works?
These challenges exist for all organizations, be they large or small, unionized or non-unionized, urban or rural. However, larger organizations, particularly in bigger cities, are more likely to have practices, staff and resources to deal with mental health issues. The same cannot be said for smaller employers in more remote areas.
In order to help organizations answer these questions, a new resource is being developed by a team at the Consortium for Organizational Mental Healthcare (COMH). COMH is an independent, not-for-profit, academic research centre located within the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. Guarding Minds @ Work: A workplace guide to psychological safety and health is a new Canadian resource intended to help employers identify and deal with psychosocial risks in their workplaces. It was commissioned by The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace and funded by The Great-West Life Assurance Company. The project team includes Drs. Joti Samra, Merv Gilbert, Martin Shain and Dan Bilsker.
Guarding Minds @ Work is intended to provide employers with evidence-based tools, that is, tools with good research evidence. These tools include:
strategies to identify and assess psychological risk factors within their workplace
criteria for selecting the best programs, policies or services to address these risks
a framework to evaluate if their efforts are effective
Guarding Minds @ Work is grounded in science and law from Canadian and international sources. A guiding principle will be to make sure that the program is accessible, relevant, practical and clear. It will be able to be used by employers across the country, including small and medium-sized companies or work units. This unique guide was launched at the end of April, 2009.
It’s now available for any employer to download for free or order at www.guardingmindsatwork.ca.
About the authorDr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. is an Adjunct Professor and ScientistDr. Merv Gilbert, R.Psych. is a principal in Gilbert Acton Ltd., Occupational Health Consultants and is an Adjunct Professor.Dr. Samra and Dr. Gilbert are members of the Consortium for Occupational Mental Healthcare (COMH) at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. Further information on COMH research activities can be found at www.comh.ca.
Government of Quebec. (2009). An Act Respecting Occupational Health and Safety. www2.publicationsduquebec.gouv.qc.ca/dynamicSearch/telecharge
Government of Saskatchewan. (2007). An Act to amendThe Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993. www.qp.gov.sk.ca/documents/english/Chapters/2007/Chap-34.pdf