Co-authored by Llewellyn Boggs and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
As a supervisor at a large retail company, I had always felt safe in the workplace. But this sense of security was upended when I learned of an armed robbery that took place at a store I worked at. The news made me feel worried for my coworkers, who had endured a traumatic event, but it also got me thinking about the issue of mental health and traumatic incidents at the workplace. What, if anything, are large retail corporations doing about mental health issues among workers? And what policies do they employ to cope with workplace trauma effectively?
Andrew Langille is a lawyer working in labor and employment law. Langille explains the difference between mental health and workplace trauma, stating that workplace trauma can be caused by customers, clients, or staff, occurring through single or multiple incidents over time. Mental health involves the psychological and medical safety of employees, which are interconnected to a high degree: this relationship is important for employees, employers, unions, and governments to understand.
As mental health becomes more of a mainstream issue, some employers are starting to make positive changes to the workplace environment. These changes stem from the notion that a positive work environment stimulates positive mental health. Changes include adding lounges, gyms, and meditation areas to help promote employee mental health.
In Canada, employers are required to adhere to laws that benefit employees, such as the Human Rights Code and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. These acts address discrimination due to race, sexual orientation, disability, and more. Adherence is legally required, but some do so better than others. Langille explains that some corporations do a good job with internal policies and are quick to react to issues, but there are often disparities within the organization. Additionally, there is no real handbook to tackle the range of issues that come up.
And yet, Langille points out that large corporations’ mental health issues stem from structural inequalities. One of the biggest structural inequalities in the workplace is the gender wage gap, but discrepancies in education and race that lead to inequalities are problematic as well. The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on structural inequalities in the workplace. Langille shares that it has highlighted the gaps currently in place, such as the disparity between precarious workers and those in more secure positions, and that the system is imperfect in obligating action on the part of the employer.
More work needs to be done on the institutional level to better support employees. Langille goes on to explain that we need to have a national mental health strategy. On the provincial level, we need coverage for psychologists, counsellors, and social workers. Government has to step up and start funding people to access other professionals who are integral to building out a proper mental health care system. Corporations could play a part in this by shifting some of the costs onto themselves, such as contributing funds to make relevant programs accessible or providing services to their employees. If you leave it up to private interests, you end up with a patchwork system.
On a final note, Langille advises employers at large corporations that it is important to provide standard mental health benefits for employees and have HR staff properly trained in cultural competency, anti-oppression, and anti-racism training. Langille adds, “Productivity loss can be quite enormous when employees have to deal with mental health issues. It pays to be proactive and have the necessary support.”
Aside from the proper training, Langille recommends making the work environment as safe and open for discussion as possible, fostering a work environment in which people feel comfortable to discuss their issues. Employers can model safe environments by letting employees know that opening up will not impact their job standing. An environment that leaves no room for workplace trauma is important to eliminate; policies ensuring that employees are treated with respect, empathy, and compassion are essential.