There was hesitation among some union leaders when the topic of a national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace was first discussed. The concern was that the potential standard may take away workers’ right to privacy regarding their personal health information or that it might mean increased discrimination for workers with mental illness by using testing as a way to terminate or refuse employment opportunities.
Although this had never been the intention, addressing this concern directly with union leaders helped provide clarity throughout the development of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard). Once they were assured that the rights of workers would be protected, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) appointed three representatives to sit on the Technical Committee for the Standard, which was launched in 2013. Each of those representatives made, and continues to make, significant contributions to improving psychological health and safety in all types of workplaces.
Mary Ann Baynton, Co-chair of the Technical Committee and a workplace relations specialist, said this was an important step. She recalls how early on in her career in the workplace mental health field she learned firsthand the benefits and value of union support with return-to-work, accommodation and conflict resolution initiatives. “Having the union representative at the table during interventions in the workplace, not only often provided comfort and support to any workers experiencing mental health concerns, it helped to sustain the development of solutions long after I was out of that workplace.”
And during the development of the Standard, Baynton also felt that the presence of union representatives was positive. “The individuals representing the CLC helped ensure the final product balanced the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders – employers, workers and unions,” she said. “The CLC reps reminded us that in highly competitive, fast-paced environments, even physical health gets lost in favour of more concrete safety initiatives. They helped us to embed the psychological health and safety management system described in the Standard, in the way business is usually done. This included considering the work that may already be done by existing Joint Health and Safety Committees, so that this wasn’t seen as an additional effort.”
Sari Sairanen, National Health and Safety Director for Unifor, said that she’s been grateful to be at the table and that the changes she’s seeing have been positive. “We’ve always been focused on physical health and safety,” she said. “There’s been a marked evolution toward psychological health and safety. It’s on the radar and we’re really looking beyond those physical hazards to the psychosocial hazards.”
While there may be union representatives who do not use psychologically safe approaches in the workplaces, much like psychologically unsafe employers, this is fortunately changing and evolving. Today, enlightened union representatives across Canada work to:
- Promote social support – Encourage a culture of respect and inclusion where workers value one another.
- Provide information and resources – Educate members on both rights and responsibilities associated with the accommodation process. Help workers who may be experiencing mental health concerns access resources and expertise available in the organization and community. Some of these resources are included in Understanding Mental Health Issues.
- Engage workers in the discussion – Help workers be active in identifying and suggesting solutions that may allow them to stay well and continue contributing at work.
- Adopt psychologically safe approaches for settling disputes – Help to resolve workplace issues in a way that may be less confrontational or adversarial, especially for workers experiencing mental health issues.
- Ensure confidentiality – Respect the worker's wishes about which information is kept private and what could be shared to help support a functioning workplace.
You can hear more from Sari and others by watching the 10th Anniversary videos. If you have not already done so, please sign up for our free email newsletter to get all the latest updates, videos and resources.