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May 12, 2010 | Volume 4 | Number 5
May 12, 2010
The past few decades have seen dramatic strides in identifying and addressing workplace and individual factors that can lead to worker illnesses, accidents and injuries. This has meant identifying and regulating environmental hazards, while at the same time providing information to workers about personal health risks and providing programs for lifestyle and behavioral changes. The task of ensuring the physical safety and health of the workforce has been reinforced by labor rulings, legislation and compensation board requirements. These efforts have been economically and practically effective and have benefited individuals, organizations and society as a whole.
There has, however, been little attention given to assessing and addressing the impact of psychological risks in the workplace. This is a serious problem in a contemporary world of work requiring psychological competencies such as judgement, knowledge, interpersonal cooperation and emotional self-regulation. These psychological tools and skills flourish only in work environments that nurture and support their development and use, and minimize psychosocial factors in the work environment that can serve to undermine them.
‘Psychological safety and health’ is a relatively new concept. Simply put, a psychologically safe workplace can be defined as one that does not permit harm to employee mental health in careless, negligent, reckless or intentional ways. There are critical reasons employers should address the psychological safety and health of their workplace and work to minimize psychosocial risk factors:
The current and ongoing failure to adequately address psychosocial hazards at work is apparent in the escalation of disability claims based on mental health disorders, increased reports of workplace conflict, and falling levels of job satisfaction, health and job commitment. This leads to reduced performance, higher turnover, increased costs and compromised safety. The net result is the loss of customers, productivity and valued employees. Proper attention to workers’ psychological health strengthens employee engagement and well-being while enhancing organizational effectiveness and sustainability. This point was highlighted in a recent Canadian Senate report:
There is thus a strong and compelling business case to be made for making the workplace an environment that is conducive to mental health, since the payback for greater productivity will outweigh the costs of the investment required to significantly reduce mental health risk factors in the workplace (The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, 2006, p.180).
Prudent, informed employers understand this, but they often feel that they lack the time, knowledge and resources to improve the psychological safety and health of their organization. They need to know where to start. A team of scientist-practitioners in workplace psychological health has created a resource to address this issue: Guarding Minds @ Work: A Workplace Guide to Psychological Safety and Health. GM@W is an evidence-based set of tools available at no cost that allows organizations – small or large, for profit or not for profit – to identify and address psychosocial risk factors and evaluate the effectiveness of their interventions.
Fundamental to GM@W are twelve organizational psychosocial risk (PSR) factors that are key contributors to employee psychological safety and health. These are consistent with, and complementary to, the five types of psychologically healthy workplace practices identified by APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. GM@W consists of three main components: assessment of the degree of risk across each PSR (based on an employee survey and self-audit), suggested actions to address areas of concern identified by the survey and audit, and evaluation of the effectiveness of interventions. Collectively, these steps provide a comprehensive approach to psychosocial risk management that is consistent with best practices for health promotion at both an individual and organizational level.
As an example, PSR1 is ‘psychological support,’ which is defined as ‘a work environment where coworkers and supervisors are supportive of employees’ psychological and mental health concerns, and respond appropriately as needed.’ If the assessment indicates that this is an area of concern, possible actions or solutions are offered. These include offering lunchtime seminars to increase employee mental health awareness, training managers to be more aware of performance issues that may reflect employee psychological ill-health, or provision of an employee and family assistance program. It should be noted that the suggested courses of action are by no means exhaustive; employers are encouraged to work with their teams to determine possible solutions that may be most relevant to their situation. Finally, the evaluation process directs employers to identify indicators that would reasonably be expected to change as a result of their efforts. These may well include financial outcomes; however it is equally important to consider desirable proximal qualitative outcomes. Thus, in the case of psychological support, a reduction in disability rates may be a distal goal however a more immediate indicator might be evidence that employees are more aware of and tolerant with respect to mental health issues.
All the information and tools necessary for an employer or work team to independently implement the GM@W resource are readily available on the website however additional consultation and support is available. The response to GM@W has been uniformly positive and a number of organizations of various sizes are at different stages in implementation.
One of the first adopters of GM@W is the Great-West Life Assurance Company, who demonstrated their commitment to workplace mental health by not only providing unrestricted funding for the creation of GM@W, but also by implementing the program across five Canadian regional offices. By providing broad communication to employees and a commitment to action, participation in the employee PSR survey was above 95 percent. No areas of serious or significant concern were found across all the PSRs, so intervention efforts focused on PSRs where moderate concern was identified. These varied across the regional offices. Employees and managers met in each region to review the actions suggested by GM@W and to generate their own solutions and identify possible indicators of success. This process continues.
Attending to organizational psychological safety and health requires ongoing vigilance and improvement. A number of countries have, or are developing national standards for psychological safety and health. GM@W has been proposed as a framework for such standards in Canada. The contemporary knowledge economy requires psychologically healthy and safe workers and workplaces; GM@W is intended to advance this objective.
Samra, J., Gilbert, M., Bilsker, D., and Shain, M. (2009). Guarding Minds @ Work: A Workplace Guide to Psychological Safety and Health. www.guardingmindsatwork.ca. Commissioned by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace and funded by The Great-West Life Assurance Company.
The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. (2006). Out of the shadows at last: Transforming mental health, mental illness and addiction services in Canada. Retrieved from Mental Health Commission of Canada Web site: http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/Pages/Background.aspx
Watson Wyatt Canada ULC. (2008). Mental health in the workplace: literature review and gap analysis. Retrieved from Mental Health Roundtable Web site: http://www.mentalhealthroundtable.ca/jul_07/WW%20GAP%20Report%20-May30_2007.pdf
Disclaimer: The content provided above is for informational purposes only. Unless otherwise specified, the inclusion of any product, service, vendor or organization does not imply endorsement, recommendation or approval by the American Psychological Association, the APA Practice Organization or the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program.
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