Throughout the past decade, occupational health professionals – a broad field that includes physicians, nurses, health and safety professionals, and occupational therapists – have helped to inform, shape and advance workplace mental health. This also includes organizations like the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Workers’ Compensation Boards across the country, and provincial organizations such as Workplace Safety and Prevention Services in Ontario. The influence of occupational health and safety on psychological health and safety is significant.
The occupational health and safety act already requires employers to provide a safe working environment. Because of this, some felt that psychological safety was already included. But many did not know what that actually meant. Maureen Shaw, who at the time was the senior leader at the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, said, “Sometimes, when a concept is not well-known or is complicated to grasp, it is better to segregate before you integrate.” This means that the concept of psychological safety needed be understood separately before its role in occupational health and safety could be just understood.
This is where individuals like Dr. Ian Arnold, an occupational health physician, come in. Dr. Arnold looked at psychological health and safety using an implementation framework that would be familiar to those who worked in the occupational health and safety field. This helped reframe the entire issue from one of individual well-being (mental health) at work to one that included organizational responsibility (psychological health and safety). His work, first done in 2011 and entitled Elements & Priorities for Working Towards a Psychologically Safer Workplace, is still relevant and helpful today.
Sari Sairanen, National Health and Safety Director for Unifor, one of the largest unions in Canada, sat on the Technical Committee for the development of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Sairanen reminded us that the Joint Health and Safety Committees in large organizations were already tasked with identifying hazards in the workplace. Educating these groups about hazards to psychological safety would be a way to embed this approach in existing processes and structures rather than requiring entirely new initiatives.
Linda Brogden, an occupational health nurse at the University of Waterloo, has been an inspiration for many. Through her persistence and focus on presenting the business case to upper management, she helped move an entire university toward psychological health and safety. While the strides within her organization have been great she cautions that it still takes time and commitment. “While I’ve been gung-ho since day one, I’ve also had to take a step back to realize that to be done right, this will take time. You can’t do it all at once and if you accept that, it’s quite manageable and it will get done.”
Our thanks go to all of occupational and health professionals who are working on the front lines, helping individuals and workplaces make the connection between health and function at work.
The first week of May each year has been deemed both Mental Health Week and North American Occupational Safety and Health week (NAOSH). Check out their websites for more information and to see how you can contribute.
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