Workplace mental health distress needs attention, too

Labour | Gregory Beatty

When we think of workplace safety, we usually think of the physical, and sadly even fatal injuries that workers can suffer on the job. But in a new five-year Mission Zero safety strategy that the Saskatchewan government and Workers Compensation Board unveiled on March 13, mental health is a major focus.

It’s a strategy that University of Regina professor Sean Tucker, who studies occupational health and safety, endorses.

“In surveys I’ve carried out for several years, I ask ‘How many days of work have you missed in the last month due to a work-related physical injury, and how many from a psychological injury?’ I find many more days are missed due to psychological injury. But if you look at WCB statistics, you find physical injuries are more represented than psychological ones,” he says.

According to Canadian health stats, one in five Canadians (that’s 7.5 million people) will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime — anxiety and depression being the most common.

There’s a personal toll, obviously, with family and friends also impacted. But poor mental health exacts a toll in the workplace too, costing the Canadian economy an estimated $50 billion a year.

Investing in mental health, conversely, pays dividends. One recent study calculated the return at $1.62 per dollar invested after one year, rising to $2.18 per dollar invested after three years.

And not to state the obvious, but injuries don’t happen in a vacuum. Just as a physical injury can cause mental distress, a psychological injury can cause physical harm.

Lori Johb, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, credits the WCB for work they’ve done to address mental health in the workplace.

“The government is inching in that direction, but the WCB is taking bigger strides. They’ve done a lot of work on harassment and violence in the workplace. And we’ve been working with them through its Work Safe strategy to get workers to the table, which is something that had been missing for a very long time,” says Johb. [see sidebar]

Duty To Accommodate

The WCB started recognizing psychological injury as a valid claim in the early 1990s, says Tucker. In 2016, Saskatchewan became the first province to create a presumption where if a worker had a mental health diagnosis they would be eligible for coverage, provided they could show it was job-related.

A series of Human Rights Commission and Canadian court rulings in the 2010s that established a Duty to Accommodate was another important step, says Tucker.

“We had instances where if an employee had anxiety or depression that affected their performance, employers would treat the issue with discipline, performance standards, and even termination,” he says.

“But tribunals and courts said ‘No, these workers didn’t feel safe sharing their struggles.’ Now, if employers see a change in behavior that affects performance, they have a duty to check to see if the employee is okay, or perhaps needs support of some kind. But there still doesn’t seem to be great awareness of that, so we still have instances where employees are discriminated against and not accommodated in the workplace,” says Tucker.

Following the 2016 change, there was an initial rise in WCB claims for psychological injury from 2017–2021. But in the last few years claims have plateaued. When we consider the decades-long struggle to normalize the concept of PTSD for first responders exposed to trauma, it’s probably no surprise.

“Stigma, barriers to reporting, what is normalized in workplaces, and groups who aren’t covered under the WCB stats, such as teachers and [elected officials], means we’re not getting the full picture,” says Tucker.

When it comes to workplace culture and attitudes toward mental health, it starts at the top, he says.

“If you are asking your employees to reach out for support, whether it’s a nurse on site, an assistance program, even just approaching your supervisor to talk about your struggles, or asking for an accommodation in the workplace, that’s a huge step,” he says.

“But there’s a real reluctance for people in leadership to talk about their own challenges, and a real fear of it being a sign of weakness.  I can’t blame them. Yes, we have things like Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, and efforts to provide mental health training. But how many leaders are willing to be vulnerable and share their own mental health journeys?” says Tucker.

Inevitably, it creates a huge disconnect, he says “You’re asking employees to do it, but you don’t feel safe doing it yourself. Unless we see leaders step up, and we sometimes do, I think there is a fear, and it’s justified, that there will be negative career consequences if an employee shares their struggle.”

Leadership can come from whole industries too, says Lori Johb, pointing to conversations the SFL has had with the Saskatchewan building trades.

“Typically, they’re mostly male workplaces,” she says. “And the rise they’ve seen in mental health issues is significant. They’re one group of workers you might not expect to see that concern. But they’re really doing some good work,” she says.

“But there is still a long way to go in having employers recognize that mental health is an important part of a healthy workplace. It’s still too easy for employers and supervisors to say, ‘Oh, you’re fine. Suck it up,’” Johb says.

Giant Fail

When grading the Saskatchewan government and WCB on the legislative and policy framework they’ve set up to address mental health in the workplace, Tucker gives an A minus. But there is a whole other dimension on the prevention-side that needs government focus too, so workers can do their jobs safely and effectively, and not be subjected to excess stress.

Here, the government gets a giant fail.

Stressed at the best of times, with pressures like automation, precarity and rigid performance standards bearing down, workers in many professions in Saskatchewan have been caught up in a broader socio-economic storm that is sweeping the province.

“We do have some larger societal issues that need to be addressed,” says Tucker. “Unfortunately, we’re not doing a good job of that. We see cases where workers are having to respond [to people in crisis].”

Johb says the SFL is doing a lot of work these days with transit drivers on violence and mental health issues they face daily on city buses.

“It’s no different for teachers and education workers,” says Johb. “There was a time when they didn’t have to worry that part of their job was to get kicked, bit or spit on, or having to take care of children who need special assistance. I’m not saying these students shouldn’t be in our schools, but staff need the proper training and supports.”

“You’re hearing the same thing from folks who work in healthcare, libraries, retail. It stems from a lack of supports in our communities for anyone who has an issue, whether it’s addictions, mental health, poverty. The incidence of violence and harassment is off the charts. These are not safe places to work anymore,” says Johb.

Tucker points the finger squarely at the Saskatchewan government — specifically, its laser focuses on treatment to help people dealing with addiction, mental health and other issues, while refusing to consider research into harm reduction measures to support people in crisis and help them stabilize their lives.

“The government needs to look at the impact of its policies. Yes, treatment programs. But they have to be open to harm reduction in all its forms,” says Tucker.

“It is completely unfair to put Saskatchewan workers in this situation. It’s the result of a narrow ideological stance that the government has, and it does harm workers,” he says.


OHS Mess

If the Saskatchewan government is serious about improving health and safety in the workplace, SFL president Lori Johb has a suggestion — one borne out of frustration.

“The frustrating thing for me is that occupational health and safety committees, which are supposed to be effectively running in every workplace, have lost all accountability,” she says.

“It goes back to 2014 when the government made amendments so that minutes from committee meetings no longer had to be submitted. Now, meetings are not happening. When I talk to committee chairs in workplaces, they can’t remember the last time they had a meeting,” says Johb.

The committees are intended to be forums where employees and employers meet and work together to address concerns and improve occupational health and safety. And the WCB has made some recent changes to summary offense tickets to ticket employers who don’t hold meetings, says Johb.

“These are legislative committees, they are set in law. They need to be happening, and we need to find a way to get them going again,” she says.

“It’s a crisis situation. Workers are not being heard. I’m a healthcare worker, and everybody I know is exhausted. There is no opportunity to have any joy in your job, that pride you used to have at going to work, it’s gone,” she says.

The result has been predictable. Workers have been resigning in droves, either to seek lower stress careers, or take their skills, talent and experience to other provinces and countries where they feel more supported, forcing the government into costly recruiting campaigns.

“The government talks about Saskatchewan’s ‘most ambitious healthcare recruitment plan ever’,” says Johb.

“It might be ambitious, but it’s not happening. When you hear that nurses, in one year, had over one million hours of overtime, and they’re spending millions on contract workers, you know they are nowhere near finding a resolution to this problem,” she says.

Step one for the government in salvaging this sad reality is simple, she says. Give workers a seat at the table again.

“When workers feel heard, they are going to be patient, and they are going to work with the government or their employer to make the changes needed — and to be part of that change. But if you’re not heard, if your government is disregarding you and ignoring your calls to be at the table, you have no reason to stick around, because you have no respect,” says Johb.