Healthcare & Safety

How Employee Experiences of Psychological Safety are Shifting Canada’s Mental Health Culture

More employees than ever are engaged in mental health conversations across the country. How are their experiences shifting the culture?
— By Malibu Kothari

Over the last two decades, and especially since the introduction of the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) in 2013, Canadian workers and employers have been increasing their conversations around mental health and well-being in the workplace. There is awareness around the issue like never before. However, beyond pure talk, what real changes are taking place?

According to the most recent longitudinal study conducted by BMC Public Health, as of late 2019 some shifts have happened, but there is still quite a lot to do. Here, the current state of the workplace will be reviewed, with an eye toward how psychological safety is impacting employee and employer experiences across Canada, and the ripple effects flowing out into the greater Canadian community.

What is Psychological Safety in Today’s Workforce?
Today, psychological safety is understood as an important factor in managing wellness at work. With the costs of Canada’s mental health crisis expected to rise as high as $16 billion by 2041, and 10 to 12 percent of the workforce experiencing a mental health challenge on any given day, there is no longer a question as to whether or not psychological safety matters.

Its boundaries have also expanded. Introduced as meaning a space where employees could express themselves without fear of punishment, violence, or other workplace repercussions, psychological safety now typically means being able to bring one’s “whole self” to work, including religious, sexual, and native/non-native background experiences. Employees today, according to The Globe and Mail, have a higher expectation around freedom of self-expression, acceptance and affirmation, and comfort in conversations than at any time in the past.

How is Psychological Safety Impacting Employee and Employer Experiences?
These shifts in expectations and awareness around psychological safety are impacting both employee and employer experiences. While BMC Public Health’s longitudinal study focused on employers in the Thunder Bay region, concurrent studies on both coasts also noted a recent rise in the perception by employees that their employers were willing to champion healthy mental health practices and day-to-day accommodation. This, in turn, is making Canadian workers more confident that they can surface their needs for mental health support at work without fear of losing their jobs.

However, on the employer side, there continues to be a struggle to balance accommodation and awareness with business goals. According to a June 2019 survey conducted by The Globe and Mail, many organizations could not articulate how their support for mental health linked with their business goals, how their specific mental health initiatives tied to business outcomes, or even what the baseline of mental health was in their workplace. In short, while interested in making improvements, most firms could not say definitively if their efforts were making a difference. Many reported stress, strain, and confusion about meeting the goals and practices outlined in the Standard.

Thus, while there is a measurable improvement on both sides in the perception that efforts to improve psychological safety and mental health are being made, hard numbers are lacking within individual firms. A number of fresh assessment tools from The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute, and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, released in 2019, aim to help firms get the numbers they need. In this way, it is hoped that the generally positive perception that something is happening can be turned into measurable data points proving that positive shifts are occurring.

In What Ways Does Psychological Safety at Work Impact the Greater Community?
Having a measurable impact matters because of the way psychological safety at work ripples out into the broader Canadian community. Workers spend an estimated 60 percent of their waking hours at work, and one-in-four workers cite work as the source of serious stress and anxiety.

Workers carrying stress, anxiety and even trauma home from the office have a significant negative impact on their communities.

Workers carrying stress, anxiety and even trauma home from the office have a significant negative impact on their communities.
In surveying healthcare workers who had experienced a negative event at work, for example, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute found that not only were these workers more likely to experience ongoing problems on the job, they were also more likely to exhibit compromised emotional, cognitive, and behavioural functioning in their lives outside of work. This could include outbursts of extreme anger or sadness, disrupted thought patterns making concentration impossible, and even personality changes or substance abuses. Further, the effects of a “bad day” at work could continue for weeks or even months afterward, especially in the absence of meaningful emotional support or psychological safety on the job.

In the past, these ongoing issues might have been dismissed, or left to employees to deal with on their own. Now, with greater awareness, it is understood to be a community problem that simply cannot be expected to be handled by an employee acting in isolation.

In communities where employers are actively engaged in creating emotionally healthy, psychologically safe workspaces, positive differences are being seen. Lower stress levels link directly to lower levels of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Happier, more confident workers are less likely to miss work, visit the doctor, or fall ill. And, with more workers feeling comfortable that they can go to work and perform well, companies and communities are seeing the positive economic impacts of lower turnover, less unemployment, and greater economic stability.

In all, while there is still much work to do, the mental health culture in Canada is shifting. There is a perception of positive change in psychological safety levels among employees at businesses of all types. With time and better tools for measurement, soon employers and employees alike will be able to point to the hard data proving that things are changing in Canada … and changing for the better.