According to Dr. Jacqueline Power, from the University of Windsor's Odette School of Business, 40 per cent of Canadians have experienced one or more acts of workplace bullying at least once a week for the last six months.   Statistics Canada reports that the cost of employee absence due to workplace bullying and harassmentamounts to $12 billion dollars a year.  Those are staggering statistics particularly given its direct link to mental health problems in the workplace and the fact that fifty per cent of victims of workplace harassment suffer from mental health related problems.  Almost 3.5 million Canadian workers are affected by mental illness most predominantly, stress, depression and anxiety.

In 2007 the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) was formed which is funded by Health Canada.  They have a10-year mandate (2007-2017) with one of their initiatives being the development of the country’s first ever mental health strategy with an emphasis on  working to reduce stigma, advancing knowledge exchange in mental health, and examining how best to help people who are homeless and living with mental health problems.   According to the MHCC, of the $51 billion economic cost each year attributed to mental illness in Canada, a whopping $20 billion stems from workplace loses.   

Workplaces can play a very important role in contributing to an individual's positive mental health.  A 2008 study conducted by the MHCC found that only 23 per cent of Canadians would feel comfortable talking to their employer abouta mental health issue, suggesting that the numbers are probably much higher than reported with individuals suffering in silence. Based on the research, workplace mental health ranked second in importance only to pay as the most important factor when choosing a job.

For employers wanting to assess the psychological well-being of their workplace in order to understand the extent to which their workplace is contributing to mental health issues at work, it is important to look beyond the obvious.   While tracking the incidence of conflict, bullying and harassment which are contributors to mental health issues in the workplace is important, and actually required under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), investigating other metrics may prove very informative as well.  Insurance and disability claims, increased absenteeism and attendance issues or decreased productivity may very well suggest other causal factors.   If managers are spending an inordinate amount of time addressing staff morale or conflicts on the team then clearly there is something else at work.   Healthy workplaces have processes and mechanisms in place for responding to conflicts and/or morale issues in a timely and respectful manner.   They simply do not allow these issues to fester and adversely impact the workplace.  Organizations thatexperience a high number of stress related absences are well advised to take a long, hard look at their culture and workplace practices to ensure that they are not contributing to a psychologically unhealthy or toxic workplace.   Do employees have sufficient time away from the workplace to   Do they work long hours?     Do employees feel supported by their manager and the organization?    Do people feel secure in their position and able to fulfill their work responsibilities without felling stressed or overwhelmed?   Do employees feel that they have a safe place to go to discuss their issues and concerns without fear of reprisal?    These are simply a couple of considerations for employers to contemplate as they begin the process of assessing their workplace.     

There are a number of key indicators which could suggest a psychologically unsafe or toxic workplace which employers may wish to tuck away: 

  • Lack of mechanisms to address conflict in the workplace
  •  Inadequate workplace harassment and workplace violence policies
  • Failure of management to take decisive and timely action in response to identified issues and concerns 
  •  A culture of blaming and scapegoating
  •  A prevalent culture of anger and frustration
  •  High turnover with the most talented individuals frequently resigning.
  •  Micromanaging
  •  Undermining behaviour
  • Lack of clear objectives; changing or arbitrary deadlines
  • Failure to solicit employee's input within own work area
  •  Culture of gossip and criticism 
  •  Cliques and feuding
  •  Overly restrictive systems, processes and policies which suggest a lack of trust
  • Death by committee ......decisions fail to be made
  • Ineffectual or powerless HR manager

While an investment of time upfront to do the work involved in the assessment, the benefits to your organization from a people and cost perspective are immeasurable..