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.   

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