Psychological Safety in the Workplace: Sector Specific Stressors and Strategies for Change

Stress is an epidemic. Fully 1 in 4 Canadian workers reporting being highly stressed, and 62% of this group report work as the main cause.  Workers increasingly believe employers play a role in this, with 43% of all employees indicating that their organization does not create an environment supporting mental wellness on the job.

These realities have significant financial consequences for employers. The economic burden and productivity loss from mental health injuries or illness is high, and the economic burden of absenteeism and presenteeism in Canada is estimated to be $51 billion a year.   Approximately 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to mental health injuries or illnesses, and approximately 30% of long-term and short-term disability claims are attributable to mental health.

These issues are particularly stark in the health care, developmental services, and home care and community services sectors. Workers in these sectors are at higher risks of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, burnout, and chronic mental stress associated with unique stressors, such as: precarious work, irregular shifts, working alone, limited control over their environment, staffing shortages, a management skill gap, consumer relations, and increased pressures for quality assurance. At the same time, there are broader structural stressors related to politically mandated changes to these sectors.  All told, these stressors create a climate that can cause or exacerbate mental health concerns for workers in the sector.

In addition to the above considerations, there are also important legal reasons to promote psychologically safe workplaces. Employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, including a workplace free form harassment. There are also obligations within the common law, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and collective agreements that relate to mental health in the workplace. Finally, employers face increased WSIB costs associated with psychological injuries related to acute and chronic stress.   Overall then, there are many financial, ethical, and legal reasons to address this crisis.

Implementing a Psychologically Safe Workplace

A psychologically safe workplace actively works to prevent harm (both intentional and unintentional) to the psychological health of employees.  While there are several resources available that provide guidance on how to accomplish this (see the end of this Article), a basic framework is comprised of 7 steps:

  1. Leadership – Commit your organization to implementing a system to ensure employee psychological safety (and make that commitment public).
  2. Training – Provide training on stress and psychological risks in the workplace to your employees.
  3. Planning – Assess the specific needs of your organization and create a plan of action.
  4. Participation – Create avenues for employees or their representatives to meaningfully participate in the planning and implementation process.
  5. Implement – Take concrete actions to implement your plan of action.
  6. Evaluate – Ensure review of the efficacy of your system and specific responses, taking corrective action as needed.

While the above plan is generic, it can help to structure an organization’s process.

Sector Specific Stressors

There are a few examples of systemic stressors in the sector that can also illustrate how concrete responses by the employer can decrease employee stress and increase their psychological safety.

For example, employees in the home and community care sector often work alone, at night, and with little control of their environment. This can understandably be stressful. An organization that identifies this as a major issue could adopt an alert system to report emergencies (e.g., with a dedicated alert devices). They could also implement protocols for risk assessment and response for employees working alone to ensure they have the skillset to keep themselves safe. Finally, a rotational schedule could be implemented to reduce burnout form prolonged assignment in high incident homes.

If the main issue in the workplace is precarious work, a different set of solutions may be appropriate. Precarious work (due to irregular or unpredictable schedules and non-full-time work) can often decrease retention, productivity, and employee morale. Appropriate solutions might include the enactment of regular schedules for shift work, the creation of full-time floater roles for backfilling, a move towards full-time work rather than part-time, and employee participation in scheduling.

As a final example, if the issue is stress associated with relations with people supported or third parties in the workplace, an employer has a variety of options. Such stresses can result from threats, harassment, and physical aggression from people supported or third parties, from intercultural communication challenges, and stressors related to the consumer’s home. An employer could respond by adopting several risk-assessment and mitigation strategies from the first example. They could also provide training to staff on non-violent de-escalation, and training on cultural sensitivity and their own rights regarding discrimination (as well as a reporting mechanism). And finally, they could create organizational protocols for assessing and addressing stressors within the home of a person supported (such as animals, smoke, or sanitation).

The range of possible issues is of course much broader than these three examples, and each employer will have different needs. Employers should work with employees and stakeholders to identify and address the unique challenges and come up with appropriate solutions agreed to by all parties. This will decrease costs, increase employee productivity, and lead to a better, safer workplace.

Key Resources for Employers in the DS and Home Care and Community Services Sector

Canadian Standards Association’s 2013 Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

From the Public Services Health and Safety Association:

From the Ministry of Labour

From the Canadian Mental Health Commission