Avoiding the hurt

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by Kip Hanson

Staying safe and sane on the shop floor

Manufacturing can be hazardous. Stamping presses slam, cutting tools slice, machine tools and forklifts show no respect for human flesh. Yet the risk of smashed fingers or a few stitches at the emergency room is nothing compared to the dangers of stress, depression and the constant worry of life as a worker bee. Simply put, a healthy workplace needs more than steel-toed boots and safety signs.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the Canadian economy loses over $50 billion annually due to mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, are just some of the health conditions that keep 500,000 Canadians home from work each week, and cause more than 30 per cent of all disability claims.

Standards and Mandates
The Canadian government agrees. Funded by Health Canada, the MHCC has worked with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA Group) and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec (BNQ) to deliver the standard CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013, or National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the National Standard).

As its name implies, the standard defines guidelines for employers wishing to create a workplace that promotes psychological wellness. Nitika Rewari, program manager, workplace, at the MHCC, explains the Commission’s recommendation “We were brought into existence to develop the first ever mental health strategy for Canada. Among other things, the strategy calls for creating mentally healthy workplaces and broad-based adoption of Standards to address the issue. The National Standard focuses on psychological health and safety in the workplace with a goal to prevent harm and promote psychosocial wellbeing in the workplace.”

To those shaking their heads over yet another government-mandated program, Rewari says the standard is not legislative, and should be considered a framework for those companies concerned about their employees’ mental well-being. “This is a free and voluntary standard. Any organization can pick up it up and implement it in a way that aligns best with its strategic direction and priorities.”

Grim Statistics
“Adults spend more waking hours in the workplace than anywhere else, up to 60 per cent of their day,” Rewari explains. “According to the recent Ipsos-Reid survey, nearly three-fourths of all employees have some degree of concern with psychological health and safety in their workplace. Half of them deal with economic uncertainty at home, and one-fourth fear losing their job, and feel they can’t do enough to please their managers and employers. Upwards of 14 per cent of workers think their workplace is psychologically unhealthy.”

Draw these statistics on a pie chart and you’re looking at one ugly pastry. What is the causes this unhappiness? The answer is manifold. For many of us, mental illness is in our genes. Mix a touch of depressive disorder with a stressful work environment and the result can be an inability to cope with even minor workplace hurdles. Psychological problems may also arise in response to life events—your best friend dies of cancer, for example, or Mom has a heart attack, and suddenly the world is a much darker place.

The workplace itself is often the cause of mental health problems. Mismanagement, lack of support and recognition, missing respect and civility—these are just a few of the reasons those half million Canadians decide it might be easier to stay home. It’s also the reason for MHCC’s mandate. “Before you can begin to address these issues, you must first assess what the problem is within your own environment,” says Rewari.

The first and foremost step when adopting the standard, she explains, is to identify a company champion, someone visibly committed to improving mental health in the workplace. This is usually a member of the senior leadership team who can navigate through the various layers of the organization and address any internal issues, such as resource allocations, and at the same time embrace the psychological needs of its workers. It’s only through management leadership, coupled with a commitment to open communication and training that employees throughout the organization will learn how to foster a healthy environment.

Breaking the mould
Unlike a broken bone or debilitating disease, mental illness cannot be seen. Because of this, psychological problems often carry a stigma, making it difficult to discuss one’s personal anguish and pain. This may be especially true in blue-collar jobs. Confide to a fellow machinist the terrible anxiety you’ve felt since scrapping out that big job last month and you’re likely to hear such sage advice as, “Geez Bob, just get over it.” Admitting you broke down in tears during the last performance review will probably elicit an uncomfortable silence, and leave you sitting alone at the lunch table.

Arto Tienaho, right, told his personal story of mental illness at the 2014 Bottom Line conference on workplace mental health. Left is Kathryn Gretsinger, conference MC.This might be an exaggeration, but the fact remains that workers fear reprisals, informal or otherwise. And as unfair as the label is, no one wants to be branded a whiner. As such, many of the mentally ill attempt to deal with issues on their own, thus compounding the problem. The results can be catastrophic. When an employee calls in sick because he or she is feeling down, it’s a manageable problem, at least in the short term. When those blues turn to black, however, it’s time for help. A workplace with the support network needed to avoid such crises is a clear and novel approach to mental health issues, one that should be a goal for all employers.

Julia Kaisla helps employers work towards that goal. As director of community engagement for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s British Columbia Division (CMHA BC), Kaisla coordinates the annual Bottom Line conference on workplace mental health ( She also travels throughout the province training employers on mental health issues, and recently gave a “Safe and Sound” presentation to BC’s FIOSA-MIOSA Safety Alliance, a group dedicated to reducing workplace injuries and disability.

Kaisla admits that much of her work so far has been with organized labour groups and the insurance, health care and banking industries. “It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve really become involved with manufacturers and engineering firms. We’ve been invited to speak at several conferences, and there seems to be increased attention on this aspect of workplace safety. Even so, we’re still in the infancy stage with some of these industries.”

A high price to pay
Aside from the sad statistics mentioned previously, mental health issues create an unfortunate storm of financial side effects. Kaisla warns that in the majority of both long and short-term disability claims, depression is a contributing factor. Further, the so-called “presenteeism” of untreated workers—those who come to work but perform poorly due to their health condition—may cost the industry 1.5 times more than if those same workers had stayed home.

Surprisingly, much of this pain and disruption is caused by the workplace equivalent of schoolyard bullying. A clear and simple statement from management that bad behavior will not be tolerated can often prevent problems with harassment, intimidation and humiliation. “It’s much easier to deal with these issues on a preventative basis than it is to face a massive legal case later,” Kaisla points out. “This is an opportunity for employers to look at their organizations more holistically, for them to consider the policies and processes they have in place, and decide whether the current structure promotes psychological health and safety for their employees.

Perhaps the easiest step on the path to a happier, healthier workplace is awareness of potential problems in the first place. Communicate openly about your concerns, and look for warning signs of mental illness in yourself and others—changes in a person’s physical health and personal appearance, a decline in sociability, poor quality of work, distractedness or an unreasonable reaction to workday tasks indicate that a person’s mental health may be under siege. Managers and employees alike must work together to address these issues, and determine if a worker’s psychological needs are being met. Mental illness is a scary and oft misunderstood condition, one that no one should have to face alone. Start talking. SMT

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]

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