Northern Exposure

New voluntary standards for psychological health in the workplace

By Marc Rodrigue

Increasing public attention has been given to mental health awareness. And Canadian employers are not exempt. Today’s employers have many employees who are affected by, directly or indirectly, psychological illness or are at risk of psychological hazards on the job. Sometimes these hazards can create human resources challenges, including extended employee absences and complex accommodation scenarios.

To assist Canadian employers in developing and promoting best practices for employees’ mental well-being, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in partnership with the Standards Council of Canada, the CSA Group, and the Bureau du normalisation du Quebec launched a nationwide voluntary employer standard titled Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation (Voluntary Standard) in January 2013.

What is the Voluntary Standard?

The Voluntary Standard sets out guidelines and recommendations employers can tailor to their organization for encouraging and promoting a healthy psychological environment. It also provides implementation advice specific for both small and large employers should they wish to adopt the standard’s requirements.

Small, medium, and large employers, healthcare groups, municipalities, provincial and federal ministries, and media organizations all provided input for the Voluntary Standard with the goal of ensuring its adaptability across the country.

Identification of risks and practices affecting psychological well-being

The Voluntary Standard calls on an employer to draft a written risk-mitigation strategy, including steps to identify, eliminate, or mitigate psychological hazards.

Factors that would affect the strategy include, among others, psychological support, organizational culture, leadership, an organization’s expectation of employees, civility and respect, work/life balance, and protections against violence, bullying and harassment in the workplace. These factors can be assessed both objectively and by assessing workers’ anecdotal experiences.

Psychological health promotion

As part of adopting the Voluntary Standard, an employer is required to commit to procedures for preventing and protecting against both physical and psychological harm. These procedures include being sensitive to employees’ work-related and non-work-related mental health difficulties. In promoting psychological well-being, an employer is advised by the standard to:

  • Provide employees with mental health resources drafted or created by the employer and other resources drawn from the general public; and
  • Enhance awareness about mental health in the workplace by:
    • training employees to identify and mitigate psychological hazards in the workplace,
    • educating employees on the issues of mental health stigma and safety, and
    • providing employees the opportunity to raise ideas and suggestions for improvement in the employer’s psychological safety efforts.

Managing critical workplace changes and events

The standard requires employers to establish change management procedures that aim to limit or mitigate the psychological impact of workplace changes such as terminations or the adoption of new policies.

Effective change management is said to include clear communication to employees and offering employees a substantive opportunity to engage in change management. In addition, the Voluntary Standard requires employers to prepare for critical events both at an individual employee level and at an organizational level – by identifying key internal and external resources, communication strategies, and by assessing emergency and crisis preparedness to mitigate related risks.

Investigations and audits

The Voluntary Standard imposes the obligation to investigate and report key psychologically harmful events including injuries, illness, fatalities, suicides, or attempted suicide, and to review the risk-mitigation practices of an employer periodically to ensure their effectiveness.

Should employers adopt the Voluntary Standard?

Employers aren’t required to adopt the Voluntary Standard. Indeed, before adopting it, Canadian employers may wish to review the standard to determine if portions of it can assist with their goals – whether to maintain organizational sustainability or to improve the attraction and retention of talent.

At a minimum, employers may wish to take the opportunity to review the standard and better understand current views on mental health and the issues of workplace psychological safety and risk – particularly if decision makers start using the standard as a resource.