Friday, November 29, 2013

Can a toxic workplace harm workers?

Most of us have heard of “toxic” workplaces.  The hallmarks of a toxic workplace typically include discrimination, back-biting, rumor-mongering, obsessive favoritism, repeated harassment, bullying and more.  As a result, workers may experience anxiety, become depressed, take sick leave or leave the company altogether.  Notice, the characteristics of a toxic workplace are all about behavior not intent. Regardless of the intent,  there is now compelling evidence that such behaviors by superiors and co-workers can harm and are harming workers.

Increasingly, workers’ compensation systems are accepting mental or psychological injuries arising from the work environment.  The trend is a natural consequence of research that has shown how stressors in the workplace can increase the risk to the psychological health of workers even in the absence of any physical trauma.  

Workers’ compensation systems have a long history of accepting psychological injury as a consequence of physical trauma.  Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is perhaps the highest profile diagnosis but clinical depression and anxiety are common and can become chronic sequellae to traumatic injury.  A single traumatic event without personal physical injury has also been recognized as creating a risk of psychological injury to workers.  First responders, disaster relief workers, and worker-witnesses to traumatic events are certainly at risk of mental disorders. 

What we now know from the research is that serious psychological harm in the form of mental disorders can occur from a single traumatic event or a cumulative series of significant stressors in multiple work-related events.  While the standard (and onus) of proof required for the acceptance of mental disorder claims varies across jurisdictions (from “causative significance” to “predominant cause”), the recognition of the risk puts an onus on employers and workers to take action to protect workers and stop behaviors like workplace bullying and harassment .  Failure to do so may well constitute a breach of the employer’s general duty to take all reasonable steps in the circumstances to ensure the health and safety of workers.

In BC, changes to the Workers Compensation Act recognized the evidence on mental injuries and the connection to toxic workplace behaviors such as bullying and harassment.  Prior to the changes contained in Bill 14, compensation was payable only where the mental stress was an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of and in the course of employment.  Under the changes that came into effect on July 1, 2012 “mental disorder” is recognized as a reaction to one or more traumatic events arising out of and in the course of the worker’s employment.    The amendment recognized that a diagnosed mental disorder may arise from a significant work-related stressor or a cumulative series of significant work-related stressors.

It’s more than a year down the road since the effective date in BC.  From published data and presentations we know that 3000 claims have been registered since July 1, 2012.  So far, nearly 500 claims have been allowed while 1400 have been disallowed or rejected and others have been suspended until a worker agrees to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist. 

Not every work-related stressor causes a work-related injury.  The pressure of workloads and deadlines, the realities of labour force adjustments and the inevitable changes in job duties are intrinsic to many industries and work environment.  While the Bill 14 amendments prescribes some exclusions (such as discipline, termination and changes in the work to be performed or in working conditions), mental disorders that are a consequence of bullying and harassment are clearly within the scope   of coverage. 

The main objection to inclusion of mental disorders in the scope of coverage and instituting new policies that target bullying and harassment involves intentions.  I’ve heard a few employers say, “It’s not my intention to harass anyone…”, “I like to keep my employees off balance—it makes it easier to manage them” ,  “Sure I am hard on my staff but it is for the benefit of the team—we all win if we meet the deadline”, “I’m not harassing any one person… It’s not harassment if you treat everyone the same.”   Even if you think there might be some merit to any of the intentions, what really matters to workers are the behaviors they observe and experience. 

Behaviors  such as calling an employee in for a meeting without ever telling them in advance why , micromanaging, withholding critical information necessary to do one’s job, and playing one employee off another may be seen as ways to retain power, meet deadlines or exceed production quotas  but are really passive-aggressive behaviors that can increase the toxicity of a workplace.  

Physically beating subordinates is never justifiable to meet deadlines or production quotas; should behaviors that can inflict mental harm be treated any differently?  Clearly, the ends in either case do not justify the means. Behaviors, not intentions, are what workers observe and experience.  Not all the behaviors mentioned here are captured by the formal definition of bullying and harassment, but they are behaviors that can undermine confidence, heighten anxiety, foster depression and contribute to a toxic workplace. 

Not every worker who is bullied or harassed will develop a mental disorder;  that does not mean that the harassment and bullying can go on with impunity.  WorkSafeBC’s policies pursuant to the Occupational Health & Safety Regulation came into effect on November 1, 2013.  The policies define bullying and harassment; more importantly, they explain the duties of workers, employers, and supervisors to prevent and address workplace bullying and harassment.

No regulatory prohibition can eliminate all the characteristics of a toxic workplace.  Eliminating bullying and harassment is a good place to start.   

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Is age 70 or 75 becoming the new 65?

I was in Washington, DC last week speaking on the impact demographic change is having and will continue to have on workplaces.  After the “Global Economic Crisis” and severe recessions in many countries, there is evidence that workers delaying retirement and even re-entering the labour force.  Demographic changes is also having an impact on the supply of qualified younger workers to take the place of older workers poised to exit the labour force. 

Social Security’s retirement age is 70.  The simple fact is that monthly benefits are highest at age 70 and are reduced actuarially for each year they are claimed before age 70.  This is a relatively new development, which may explain why Social Security’s retirement age is the best-kept secret in town.  But I think it’s time we told folks.   And then we need to clarify what all this talk about raising the so-called full retirement age really means.

US Social Security and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) are similar in many ways.  CPP also provides the greatest benefit to those who postpone receipt to age 70. Yes, 65 is still the reference year for retirement but waiting has its rewards and these are increasing.   From 2011 to 2013, the Government of Canada has gradually increased the incentive to delay collecting CPP.  As of this year, 2013, if you start receiving your CPP pension at the age of 70, your pension amount will be 42% more than it would have been if you had taken it at 65. 

Put another way, if you assume the point of view of age 70 as the reference year at 100%, then retirement at age 65 has an initial monthly CPP payment of only 70.4% of the monthly amount at age 70.  Because CPP is also increasing the “penalties” for retiring early, in 2013, a 60 year old retiree would get only 47.6% of the retiree delaying receipt of CPP to age 70. 

Now, for many people the incentive or penalty is irrelevant.  Health and income may simply make delaying receipt of CPP out of the question.  For others, particularly those that are in relatively good health and who may have invested heavily in education before starting work, work beyond age 65 may be a necessity.  The employment rate of for males 65 and over with a university degree was 25.3% in 2012.  For those 65 and older with educational attainment above a bachelor’s degree, the employment rate was nearly 30% in that year.  Both the employment rate and actual numbers of these older workers is increasing.  [CNSIM Table 282-0004 Canada, Employment rate by Educational Attainment for selected age groups 2012].

Canada and the US are well above the OECD average for life expectancy.  The life expectancy and labour force participation rate for those over the age of 65 are also above average-- and rising-- but still below  life expectancy and participation rates in some countries such as Sweden.  Sweden’s centre-right  Prime Minister,  Fredrik Reinfeldt , recently put it bluntly:  Swedes should be prepared to work until they are 75 and to change careers in the middle of their work life if they are to keep the welfare standards they expect.  He also note that half of today's children in Sweden can expect to become 100 years old and there has to be a change in the way the Swedes view their work life.

The point is simply this:  we are seeing and will continue to see more workers aged 60, 70 and older in our workplaces.  We need them.  Work is good for their health and well-being.  They want to work –some for the money but many for social and mental stimulation reasons.   It is time to rethink policies and attitudes that fail to appreciate this changing reality.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Why did you attend the ACHRF event in Australia?

I spent much of October in Australia.  My main purpose was to attend the third Australasian Compensation Health Research Forum (ACHRF) in Sydney.  The forum had two full days of presentations and discussions along two themes:  Day 1-  Return to work and social participation and Day 2- Health and disability services delivery.  While there is no substitute for personal participation in the conference, the organizers have made most presentations available on line.

My keynote presentation was an introduction to the first day and to the theme of return to work and social participation.  I used an “environmental scanning” approach to highlight “Six Trends, Three Predictions and One Sure Thing: International Perspectives on Return to Work and Social Participation.” This presentation provided evidence for six trends in North America, Europe and the Australasian region and some predictions for what is coming next. 

I touched on the following trends:

1.       Rise of social enterprise 
2.       Mainstreaming Social Responsibility
3.       Enabling through Technology
4.       Improving through Comparison
5.       Dawning of BIG DATA
6.       Resetting Expectations

My three predictions that will influence RTW in the future flowed from these trends and from other developments that are hard to ignore:

1.       Demographic Change:  Unexpected Consequences
2.       Concepts of “Disability” will change….Dramatically
3.       Technology, for good and ill, will change everything

The “One Sure Thing” is that the number of disabled persons is going to increase dramatically.  Already, US Social Security Disability is nearing the point of insolvency; the number of recipients of Canada Pension Plan Disability is rising and is projected to continue to rise for at least the next two decades.  This does not even address the rising prevalence of disability in the overall population.  One New Zealand study projects the disabled population is estimated to grow over the next 50 years to 1.2 million people, or 21 per cent of the total population.

The goal of the presentation was not to solve the world’s problems or to pass judgment on the trends identified.  The goal was to invite the gathered researchers, administrators, policy makers and practitioners to lift their point of view from the narrow focus on jurisdiction and caseloads; to view the wider world of RTW and social participation in other jurisdictions; and to begin a process of discussion, research and action to improve outcomes for those that need it most.

A major advantage of participating in this event was the opportunity it afforded me to meet with reprentatives from agencies that share the mandate of WorkSafeBC.  These included WorkSafe Victoria, the Transport Accident Commission (TAC),  ACCComcare, WorkCover NSW and many researchers associated with the Institute for Safety and Compensation Recovery Research (ISCRR)— host of the event and sponsor of my participation.  Those informal discussions provide the context essential to understanding the trends and results evident in other jurisdictions. 

Even if you can’t personally attend events like this one, the program and presentations provide a portal through which you may glimpse the direction of new research and the approaches of others to issues common to all.   The world of workers’ compensation, prevention, and RTW is small and many of the challenges we face are common.  There is much to learn from each other.  Exploring the presentations from this event may open new avenues of dialogue with our Australasian cousins.