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 co-workers who’d 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 in the workplace, and what policies do they employ to cope with workplace trauma effectively?
Andrew Langille is a lawyer working in labor and employment law. In an interview with The Trauma and the Mental Health Report, Langille explains the difference between mental health and workplace trauma:
“Workplace trauma can come about from single or multiple incidents over time, such as harassment, and can be caused by customers or clients to staff. Mental health involves the psychological and medical safety of employees. They are both interconnected to a high degree, and it is important for employees, employers, unions, and governments to think about how they related.”
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 government acts 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, etc. Adherence is legally required, but some do so better than others. Langille explains:
“Some corporations do a good job with internal policies and are quick to react to issues, but often there are 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, race, and media inequalities are highly problematic as well. The current COVID-19 pandemic has also put a spotlight on the idea of structural inequalities in the workplace. Langille adds:
It has highlighted the gaps currently in place, such as the disparity between precarious workers and those in more secure positions. The system is rather imperfect in obligating action on the part of the employer.
Also, more work needs to be done on the institutional level to better support employees. Langille goes on to explain:
“We need to have a national mental health strategy. On the provincial level, we need coverage for psychologists, counselors, and social workers. Government has to step up and start funding people to access other professionals who are integral to building out a proper health care system as it relates to mental health. Corporations could play a part in this by shifting some of the costs onto themselves, such as contributing funds to make certain programs accessible to everyone or providing services to their employees. If you leave it up to private interest, you end up with a patchwork system. Early prevention is key; get a referral before it gets to a crisis level where you have to be sent to a hospital or even lose your job.”
On a final note, Langille advises employers at large corporations:
“It is important to have HR staff properly trained in cultural competency, anti-oppression, and anti-racism training. Provide standard mental health benefits for employees to take advantage of. 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:
“Have a work environment in which people feel comfortable to discuss their issues. Model safe environments and let employees know that opening up will not impact their job standing. An environment that doesn’t leave room for workplace trauma is important to eliminate it. Policies ensuring that employees are treated with respect, empathy, and compassion are essential.”
– Llewellyn Boggs, Senior Contributing Writer