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Time to set workplace standards for mental health, just like physical safety

Canadian workers and businesses should expect the same kind of standards and safeguards for psychological health on the job as they do for their physical well-being.

That’s the message from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which has launched a collaborative project to create national voluntary standards for mentally healthy workplaces.

Senator Michael Kirby, the commission chair, says mental disorders cost the Canadian economy about $51 billion a year, with almost $20 billion of that coming out of workplace losses.

Kirby says setting standards for healthy psychological work environments won’t just help people, it will help the business bottom line.

The mental health commission will set voluntary standards in consultation with the Canadian Standards Association and its Quebec counterpart, the BNQ.

The federal government is kicking in $325,000 for the study and Bell Canada (BCE) is contributing $150,000.

Kirby said the current economic downturn should make employers even more eager to adopt voluntary standards for psychologically healthy workplaces that reduce absenteeism along with longterm disability and drug plan costs, while improving productivity.

“Even if the employer didn’t want to adopt the voluntary standard as the right thing to do for the employees, it’s absolutely the right thing to do in business terms in terms of its impact on the bottom line,” Kirby told a news conference at a downtown Ottawa hotel Friday.

“You can make an overwhelming business case for it.”

While the standards will be entirely voluntary, they could provide potential support in legal cases involving psychologically abusive work situations, said Jacques Girard of the Bureau de normalization du Quebec.

“When a standard is set, it may be a voluntary standard but it sets also the rules,” said Girard.

“It is where the knowledge is at the moment, and it’s publicly available. So when something is before the courts, a public standard cannot be ignored.”

Dr. Ian Arnold of CSA Standards said typically “toxic workplaces” frequently include a combination of tight deadlines and “a lot of demand put on employees, there’s no sort of control over that demand.”

And Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said she’s constantly reminded during her travels of the prevalence of mental illness.

When Bradley introduces herself and explains her job, “each and every time, the person next to me has had a story to share with me — at first in hushed tones, so that anybody else around the plane doesn’t hear it.

“It’s about themselves, a family member — and, very often, about a work colleague or their own experiences in the workplace.

Bradley said setting national standards will “go a long way toward helping people speak more openly and honestly about these situations.”

She said the stigma of mental illness “has been described by many people as sometimes being as bad or worse than the illness itself.”