Whether it’s being spat on by angry bus passengers, accused of stealing by an Alzheimer’s patient or simply ignored by your fellow office drones, psychological damage at work is getting more attention from both researchers and rule-makers.
Traditionally, B.C.’s resource-based economy created physical rather than mental threats on the job: loggers crushed by falling trees or commercial fishermen lost to drowning. Tougher safety standards in past decades make it less likely you’ll be mangled or killed while earning a paycheque, but workplace experts say information- and service-based economies create their own mental health risks.
“There was a time not so long ago that you put your back into it, now you put your head into it,” says Merv Gilbert, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.
“Work these days in most sectors, including a number of the so-called blue-collar areas, does require concentration and getting along with other people. It’s a psychological competency.”
WorkSafeBC officially recognized the shift midway through 2012 when it started accepting mental disorder claims arising from “a cumulative series of significant work-related stressors.” Until then, only traumatic events at work were considered, meaning that paramedics and other first-responders were most likely to receive compensation.
In the first 22 months of the program, it has paid out more than $10 million on the 655 mental stress claims that it accepted. About 30 per cent of those were for a workplace stressor; 70 per cent for traumatic incidents.
Half of those successful claims came from health care, social services or transportation sectors.
About 2,000 additional claims were rejected and another 1,000 suspended by applicants who decided not to proceed with the necessary psychological assessments and workplace investigations.
“Forty-five to 50 people are applying for benefits every week. That’s an indication that there are problems in the workplace,” says Jennifer Leyen, director of special care services for WorkSafeBC. “There are a lot of fragile people in the workplace.”
Even though the narrow scope of WorkSafe’s mental stress rules limit payouts to a small fraction of applicants, Leyen says the department overseeing it is the largest for any single health condition because of its complexity and growing demand.
Mental stress files made up less than one per cent of WorkSafe’s 104,000 approved injury claims in 2013, which paid compensation of $1.5 billion.
Part of the reason is that people are ashamed to go public, so they soldier on, notes Gilbert.
“The majority of people with mental health concerns — diagnosed or undiagnosed — are at work, they’re not off work.”
Depression, anxiety and substance abuse are the most common, he says. Unhealthy workplaces tend to have higher turnover and absenteeism coupled with lower productivity.
A 2011 report prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that two of every nine workers — 21 per cent — have a mental illness that could affect their work productivity and resulted in $6.3 billion in lost wages that year.
An online education program for employers, the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, says the costs of inaction are increased claims for a host of physical heath problems including heart conditions, back pain and injuries. It also creates an atmosphere in which workers are less adaptable, and become either more aggressive or passive and helpless.
So where are these toxic workplaces and what’s going on in them? The easy answer is that police, firefighters and other emergency responders are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder due to the nature of their work. Nurses and bus drivers who routinely come up against the violent or unhinged are more likely to report anxiety or depression.
Then there are all the office workers and service providers at risk from:
• Feeling powerless about what their duties are and how they perform them;
• Seeing no link between how hard they work and how much they are appreciated;
• Harassing action by angry managers and hostile clients.
In the last year, WorkSafeBC has concentrated on stamping out bullying and harassment in the workplace and now requires all employers to have a policy in place to prevent it. It offers reams of handouts describing what bullying includes — insults, sabotage, threats — and what it doesn’t — negative work evaluations, discipline and even firing.
While it’s a good step, experts say, it overlooks other issues like the damage caused by a constant thrum of low-level incivility — the eye rolling, the interruptions, the dismissiveness.
If employers focus only on the most egregious behaviour that will result in a reprimand from regulators or, worse, a court case, they’re missing a chance to change the tone of what’s acceptable, says Richard Hart, a lawyer, mediator and arbitrator with Proactive Resolutions, a workplace consulting firm with offices in Sydney, Australia; Richmond, Va.; and Vancouver.
“Employers can focus on definitions and say: ‘When are we going to be held liable?’
“Who cares? Deal with it whether you are going to be held liable or not because there are going to be more problems if you don’t,” says Hart.
His work has taken him inside a number of occupations considered to be high stress including fire departments, police forces and hospitals, and says workers often cite poor treatment they receive from their colleagues, referred to as “lateral violence,” as part of the problem.
“People talk a lot about it in those environments. They say, ‘This has a huge impact on my work.’”
Even the absence of action can be damaging, says Sandra Robinson of the Sauder School of Business at the University of B.C. She co-authored a 2014 report that concluded ostracism is more likely to make someone quit their job than harassment.
“The experience of ostracism has a bigger impact on job dissatisfaction, on psychological well-being, on self-reported physical health, on intentions to quit the company,” she said.
Respondents to the study’s questionnaire who said they were ostracized were also more likely to leave their job within three years than those who were bullied.
“With bullying, you usually can do something about it. There are policies, people can see it, you can take recourse.
“Victims of ostracism really feel they can’t do anything about it. It’s very difficult to call-out the absence of behaviour. A lot of people end up quitting for their own well-being.”
The study found that 71 per cent of respondents said they had been on the receiving end of ostracism in the last six months; 48 per cent said they had been bullied.
Should ostracism be included in WorkSafeBC’s anti-bullying campaign?
“Absolutely,” said Robinson. “We think this is more common. It’s viewed to be less harmful. It’s a way to be quote-unquote professional … But it is a type of bullying. We need to put a spotlight on it.”
The Vancouver-based Canadian Institute for the Relief of Pain and Disability is hosting a conference on psychologically healthy workplaces June 26 and 27 at the University of B.C., with satellite feeds available at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George, UBC Okanagan in Kelowna and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. For more information go to cirpd.org