Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace: A Legal and Practical Framework

On May 15, I had the pleasure of attending the Ontario Workplace Health Coalition’s Annual Joan Burton Day of Learning, and listening to a dynamic lawyer, Lauren Bernardi, who not only spoke passionately about this topic but models the behavior in her own law firm!

Yes, Lauren believes employers must go further than simply looking at legal definitions and saying nothing happened…. She encourages using mental harm as part of the assessment in any workplace investigation.  Was an employee mentally harmed as a result of particular interactions, either with a manager or a co-worker?

Fundamentally, this is about how we are treated in the workplace. We cannot just survive. We need to thrive!

What is a Psychologically Safe Workplace?

A place where reasonable precautions must be taken to:

  • Protect mental health
  • Prevent mental injury (harm)

10 Causes of mental injury:

  1. Expecting too much from people without considering the consequences
  2. Not allowing discretion over how work is done without a valid business reason
  3. Refusing to acknowledge contributions from an individual
  4. Favourtism in distributing rewards or work
  5. Failure to provide timely feedback or corrections
  6. Not sufficient participation in decision making
  7. Withholding information from employees or groups of employees
  8. Ignoring basic fairness and due process
  9. Failure to identify and correct mentally abusive situations
  10. Failure to meet the duty to accommodate mental illness/injury

Mental injury is about more than harassment. Although, in many instances, a claim of harassment in the workplace cannot be substantiated, we all know and have become aware that there is an impact on employees — and we need to recognize that impact.

If I feel unsafe physically in my workplace, then the impact is I feel unsafe psychologically as well.

Lauren spoke at length about what she sees as flaws in employer systems, and particularly in hiring practices. Managers who take a hands-off approach or a dictatorial approach, or who are passive and unsupportive in the workplace will have a negative impact on dealing with or not dealing with situations. This often leaves the worker feeling vulnerable, humiliated, and hurt. She encourages employers to look for emotional intelligence when hiring for managerial roles.

She went on to say that managers who are found to have violated process within an organization — including harassment, intimidation, or bullying — should not receive a bonus at the end of the year as this sends the message that the employer condones bad behavior on the part of management.

Bill 148 which came into effect January 1, 2018, places a higher onus on the employer to investigate any and all adverse incidents that come to their attention.

There is no longer an obligation to put an issue in writing, and further, there is no requirement for an employee to put the complaint on an employer’s “special form”.

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) now recognizes mental stress claims as well, under Bill 148. The following are a few examples of claims for WSIB;

  • Events which clearly cause humiliation
  • Abusive/threatening interpersonal conduct
  • Lack of managerial support
  • Workload issues

To qualify for benefits under WSIB, a person must be diagnosed by a healthcare practitioner based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Lastly, Lauren indicated — and this is something the Union knows too well — that fixing the issue is sometimes more difficult moving forward.

She offered these last pieces of advice:

  • Breathe
  • We are humans with varying thresholds and boundaries
  • We are operating in imperfect systems
  • We will experience conflict – it is healthy
  • Document ongoing mental stress

As many of you are aware, CAMH has introduced free psychological services to all CAMH employees—finally.  This has been a service the Union has been advocating for many years— and it is extremely successful.  This service is completely confidential.

Please feel free to contact CBT Associates if you feel you are feeling the effects of burnout, compassion fatigue, have feelings of sadness, are irritable, angry, or overwhelmed. Perhaps you struggle with substance use, grief or loss, a disrupted sleep pattern, irregular eating habits, or problems with your personal and professional relationships.

The opportunity is there for you to make changes—please use this resource.

Finally, doing nothing, not reporting, and not speaking up is only going to make the situation worse.  You send the message you are OK with the manner in which you are being treated, and the manager will not alter their bad behavior if they are not sent a strong message.

Sadly, the Union is aware of a number of intimidating managers who use the power and privilege they have been given to treat employees in a mean, aggressive manner. We hope they stop and allow employees to work in an environment which allows us all to thrive.


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Union office Unit 1, B-2A, (Basement, room 2A), Queen Street West Site 1001 Queen Street West Toronto, ON M6J 1H4 Tel: 416 535-8501 x32330 Fax: 416-583-1254 Email:
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