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Quebec labour law to make employers accountable for psychological harm in workplace

Toronto, ON -- For the first time, Canadian organizations with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) now have a way t...


Toronto, ON — For the first time, Canadian organizations with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) now have a way to predict the likelihood of workplace violence, according to a report by the WarrenShepell Research Group, subsidiary of WarrenShepell Consultants Corp., a provider of EAP and related organizational health and wellness services.

“There is an urgent need for employers and human resource professionals to recognize the signs of a violence-prone workplace, says Rod Phillips, president and CEO of WarrenShepell Consultants Corp. “And with pending legislation in the province of Qubec that will enable employees to make claims against their employer as a result of ‘psychological harassment’ on the job coming into effect in 2004, employers need to act now.”

According to the study, serious mental health issues are directly linked to higher rates of work-related trauma, including violence, harassment and workplace conflict.

Worse still, personal problems such as anger, grief, marital/relationship issues, addictions and family challenges are going untreated in many organizations. The result is a high potential for violence in certain corporate environments.

For the first time this study shows business leaders how to use their organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) data to predict the likelihood of workplace violence.

Adds Phillips, “Canadian employers cannot afford to be complacent about the sources of stress that can fester and lead to toxic workplaces. EAPs can and must do more.”

Gerry Smith, vice-president of organizational health at WarrenShepell Consultants said, “We tested our theory that the issues presented to the EAP could be viewed as a ‘psychosocial fingerprint:’ a profile of an organization’s overall mental health climate, and its risk for workplace violence.”

The study found a direct relationship between the number of Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISDs) delivered and individual counselling requested for specific types of issues.

The study’s authors acknowledge that they expected to see a link between CISDs and individual work-related stresses such as performance and career issues, instances of violence and harassment. However, the significant correlations between personal issues such as mental health problems, anger, grief, family issues and addictions were surprising and particularly informative. Says Phillips, “This tells us that an organization’s leaders don’t have to wait until an incident of violence occurs — or a claim of psychological harassment is made — to take action.”

Smith adds that, “This is especially important now that Qubec has taken the lead in Canada and enacted changes to its Labour Standards Act to take effect June 1, 2004.” This legislation defines psychological harassment as ‘any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that has an effect on an employee’s dignity, psychological or physical integrity and results in a harmful work environment for the employee.’

While there is a variety of legislation in place at both the federal and provincial levels to combat physical abuse and threats of violence, the Qubec law dealing specifically with psychological abuse will be the broadest and strongest to be introduced in North America.

“What this really means is that employers will now be held accountable for preventing the emergence of harmful work environments,” says Smith. “But even if an employer agrees that preserving the mental well-being of its staff is the right thing to do, or is required by law to do it, the next question is, how? These key findings point us in a clear direction.”

Workplace homicide is the second most common cause of death in U.S. organizations, according to 1996 figures published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The same report estimates workplace assaults at 18,000 per week. Reliable, recent statistics pertaining to Canadian workers are not easy to find.

“We seem to pay attention to workplace violence in short bursts,” Phillips adds. “In the immediate aftermath of a high-profile workplace shooting, like the OC Transport incident, we sit up and take notice. But responsible employers know that they have to be concerned with violence and abuse every day. No organization is immune, and you have to have a system in place to see the warning signs early.”