Toxic workplaces need 'comprehensive approach' not band-aid solutions

Photo: flickr/gonzales2010

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One in five Canadians will suffer from a mental health illness or problem during their lifetime, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Statistics also show the annual economic cost to the country is at least $50 billion -- a figure only expected to climb in future years.

In part two of this special feature, Teuila Fuatai discusses mental health practices with representatives of the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union (OPSEU).

 

Terri Aversa

Health and Safety Officer, OPSEU

Former corrections officer Terri Aversa is all too familiar with the dysfunctions of toxic workplaces. 

In her 12th year as a health and safety officer with OPSEU, Aversa has spent more than a decade working with union members, employers, health experts and industry stakeholders trying to improve mental health practises for workers.

A major focus for her has been to raise awareness around preventative systems that can help workers deal with trauma, particularly those on the frontlines of Ontario's health and care industries.

"You can't obviously prevent all trauma or get rid of it -- Children's Aid work is always going to be traumatic, paramedic work is always going to be traumatic," Aversa said.

However, ensuring the proper supports are available to workers when they need help can make a world of difference.

For example, workers dealing with traumatic situations may need a short period of time after an incident to regroup. For ambulance workers, this might mean being able to pull their vehicle off the road for 10 minutes. For those in emergency call centres, it could mean having access to a quiet room in the building after a bad phone call, Aversa said.

"Sometimes, it's hard for organizations to think of things they might be able to do to prevent or minimize [the effects of traumatic incidents].... but even just listening and giving workers what they need to make it better is important," she said.

One of the community nursing agencies Aversa deals with has managed to successfully overhaul some of its organizational structures after feedback from workers and managers.

"There weren't enough staff, they were rushing around a city trying to do the calls by the end of the day [and] they were working forced overtime everyday," she said of the agency.

"There was a lot of bullying and harassment within the workforce because the dispatchers were their own colleagues, and they were having to dispatch the [client] list out. It was a toxic workplace."

In addition to this, worker absentee was quite common at the agency. Keeping new recruits, some of whom quit before completing training, had also become a problem. 

"The workers got together and approached the employer with a collective strategy. The employer [then] sat down and negotiated a geographical model of dispatch which solved 90 per cent of the problems," Aversa said.

Nurses were assigned a zone to cover, cutting down travel time dramatically.

"They were able to reduce the workload, spend longer with the patients, be less frazzled and there was no more forced overtime -- which lowered the bullying and harassment."

More employers must understand how this type of comprehensive approach, which specifically considers how organizational structures impact workers' mental health, can be beneficial to employees and businesses, Aversa said.

Furthermore, shifting away from a purely clinical approach -- where individuals are sent to clinicians to receive help once a problem is identified -- must be considered.

Health and safety initiatives like the nursing agency's geographical model of dispatch work well when implemented at an organizational level.

Relying on "band-aid" approaches, which focus on individuals and individual instances, will only do so much, Aversa said.

 

Jane Kaija

OPSEU chair of the Children's Aid Society (CAS) sector

Summer is one of the toughest times of the year for CAS workers.

Jane Kaija, who represents 3,600 agency workers as OPSEU's CAS sector chair, said workloads for many of her members -- who are already stressed out and overworked -- often increase as the mercury rises.

"We go into a crisis every single summer because people are trying to take their vacation…but then things blow up." With schools on summer break, the stresses facing families are different, and often require extra attention from CAS, Kaija said.

Every year, the union tells management extra caseworkers are needed, however, nothing seems to change.

Like Aversa, Kaija believes organizational changes are needed to begin addressing the mounting mental health stresses CAS workers are experiencing.

"I know that workers are very passionate about their job, so they're going to look after themselves at the end," Kaija said.

"We continue to see workers working really long hours, they don't claim for time, or can't claim for time, because most agencies won't let overtime go through. They're burnt out, and by the time they figure they're burnt out -- it's really bad." 

Dealing with abuse and trauma on the job only added to worker difficulties, she said.

According to a province-wide CAS worker safety survey in 2014, at least one in four employees had experienced assault during their career. Nearly half said they had received a threat to themselves or their families, and a similar amount had felt traumatized because of violence affecting a co-worker or child. Overall, three in four CAS workers experienced at least one aspect of violence on the job, the survey found.

Kaija said the union had also noticed an increase in the number of workers on long-term disability.

Staff shortages and bad workplace practises are a major contributor to problems CAS workers are facing.

"A lot of agencies have no current training for new workers. They have no idea what they're looking into, or what they're getting into, and they're not told," Kaija said.

While a new project was underway to ensure caseworkers at all agencies underwent training, it was unlikely to kick in until next year -- leaving people in the lurch for at least another six months.

Consideration to other CAS staff members, not just caseworkers, was also needed, she said.

"[At reception], you come face-to-face with clients where there could be something wrong. That worker is not trained for that."

Hiring more caseworkers, not just support staff, and rolling out incident training at all agencies for all front-line staff will be a huge step in helping an embattled workforce, Kaija said.

It is not enough that some agencies provide adequate training for workers, while others do not have any, she said.

 

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/gonzales2010

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