Keeping them whole in today’s workplace
A World Health Organization study estimates mental health will become the number one source of disability worldwide by the year 2020.
Many now question how workplace stress contributes to this burden. New technologies and organizational structures like lean production and up-to-the-minute delivery intensify the pace of work. Despite labour’s historic struggle to win an eight-hour workday, the workforce is now increasingly polarized between those working unprecedented amounts of overtime and others holding several part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Globalization underpins much of this and threatens the job security of many. Government budget cuts mean many public sector workers are forced to do more with less. Statistics Canada surveys find increasing reports of stress among education, health and social service workers. In addition to longer hours, workers in most sectors also have fewer vacations and public holidays than our European counterparts. Add to this the daily challenges of balancing work and family and most find it’s far more difficult to keep body and soul together.
Existing research tells us that work characterized by an intense pace with high demands and low control can contribute to musculoskeletal injuries. Other studies link excessive stress to increased rates of infectious and cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. But how do these same stressors affect our mental health? Are depression and anxiety the latest illnesses borne of our restructured workplaces?
Andy King is Canadian national health, safety and environment director for the United Steelworkers Union. “We’ve yet to fully recognize how workplace risk factors affect our mental health. I liken it to where we were 20 years ago trying to address repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Then, attention focused on the vulnerable physical makeup of RSI victims, instead of looking at workplace risk factors. We have to learn from that early struggle.”
Health Canada studies found the number of Canadian workers who report high job stress nearly tripled from 13 per cent in 1991 to 35 per cent by 2001. Mental health disability claims, especially for depression, now outpace cardiovascular disease as the fastest growing category of disability in Canada.
More disturbing still is the picture of those most often stricken — people in the prime of their working lives, especially young workers and women.
Like King, many are beginning to ask tough questions about how the work environment affects our mental health. They argue it’s time to focus less on individual characteristics and more on organizational structures which can contribute to illness.
Recent funding announcements suggest governments too are recognizing workplace mental health issues can no longer be ignored. This April the federal health minister announced $3.2 million of funding for the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) to conduct research aimed at improving mental health in the workplace. The new initiative, Mental Health and the Workplace: Delivering Evidence for Action
, hopes to build research capacity, evaluate and identify policy and program interventions and best practices.
Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s Research Advisory Council (RAC) has also identified workplace mental health as a priority area for future centres of research expertise.
The CIHR was a key organizer of this summer’s first Canadian conference for research on mental health in the workplace. Marie Clarke Walker, executive vice president of the Canadian Labour Congress, told conference delegates, “Mental complaints are variously described as a disability, a disorder or illness. Yet a disorder or illness suggests that the complaint is somehow a fault that has to be remediated by treatment....The stigma consists in the categorization itself. The preferred term in the labour movement is “mental injury at work”, which suggests that workers have had something done to them.”
No Canadian jurisdiction specifically addresses workplace stress or associated mental injury in its health and safety legislation. However, Quebec workers under provincial jurisdiction now have some recourse to address workplace harassment. As of June 2004, amendments to Quebec’s Labour Standards Act require employers to provide a workplace free of psychological harassment. Most recently, delegates to the Ontario Federation of Labour’s (OFL) eighth biennial convention passed a resolution calling the OFL to press the Ontario government for similar legislation.
Most compensation boards across Canada, at least formally, accept lost-time claims but only for those workers suffering traumatic mental stress in reaction to a traumatic event. This limited application stands despite a significant 2003 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Two New Brunswick injured workers were denied access to permanent benefits by the New Brunswick Compensation Board for the debilitating chronic pain associated with their injuries.
The Supreme Court decision said the exclusion of workers from the general compensation provisions violated their equality rights of workers injured with chronic pain, contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Workers suffering from chronic pain could not be treated differently than other injured workers.
Many had hoped the decision would open the door for other workers suffering from chronic work-related stress and mental injury. While they work to pry that door open, worker representatives continue to negotiate good disability management, return to work and employee assistance programs to ensure workers aren’t further harmed if and when they do return to work.
Fortunately, many others are working to develop educational resources to help identify, assess and eliminate workplace stressors and the harm they cause. For instance, the Workers Health and Safety Centre is working in concert with the Canadian Auto Worker’s (CAW) Health, Safety and Environment Training Fund to develop a 40-hour stress awareness program, which should be ready for a pilot in June 2006 and delivery in fall of the same year.
Two years ago the Training Fund sponsored a conference specifically on workplace stress. Lyle Hargrove is the Fund’s director. “We want to train union leadership about stress-related issues like we have for years on ergonomics and cancer prevention. They need the tools to go back to their workplaces, bargaining tables and legislatures to improve the way we work — our program will most definitely provide these tools.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has developed a resource guide for committees entitled, Enough Workplace Stress: Organizing for Change.
They also hope it will help worker representatives identify and address workplace stressors. The resource comes in response to a recent online survey of their members. It found more than 85 per cent of those who participated in the survey said levels of workplace stress had increased in the last two years, but only 24 per cent had raised the issue with their joint health and safety committee.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) are also educating their members on workload and work/life balance issues through their discussion paper called Karoshi
, the Japanese term for death by overwork. While the Alliance has bargained gains around leave provisions to care for family, they’ve admittedly made less headway on workload issues. Brenda Shillington, PSAC regional health and safety representative, reports, “Some members have tried to work part-time but there’s always pressure to do more. It seems either you have to leave the workplace altogether or you stay at work and juggle both. Workloads are largely still controlled by management, which if abused, can contribute to employee harassment.”
For more significant advancements, Ontario activists look to Europe for solutions. In the United Kingdom, where one in five workers report being extremely or very stressed from work, government campaigns (as a result of union demands) encourage employers to institute policies and programs to create a better work/life balance. Sweden’s Work Environment Act
requires employers to design work to limit physical and mental stress. In Denmark psychologists help investigate workers’ reports of stress. Scandinavian nations also lead the way in offering paid leaves to allow workers more time for family responsibilities outside of work.
So while new workplace focused research gets underway here in Ontario and Canada, workers and their representatives recognize there is much we can do already to prevent workplace stressors, mental injury and the suffering they cause. Helping workers keep body and soul together in today’s world will be a significant challenge, but all understand it is one that must be met.
The Workers Centre has recently updated their three-hour training module on occupational stress. A descriptor for this program and a Resource Line
, or hazard bulletin, on work stress is available at www.whsc.on.ca. Or call from anywhere in Ontario, 1-888-869-7950.