Mental Health: The challenge of the public service
The government workplace is especially toxic. Public servants are off work due to diagnosable mental disorders at a rate 300% higher than the general workforce.– Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health
How to avoid the “Domino effect”? Let the government workplace be where the solution to modern-day chronic job stress is found instead of serving as a uniquely productive source of that stress.
In this brain-based economy, the business case for mental health is fundamentally a challenge of asset management. The asset is the cognitive capacity, cerebral skill sets, emotional intelligence, resilience and mental health of managers and employees up and down the organizational chart.
"Mental disorders are by far the most important illness for people of working age," declares the London School of Economics. In Canada, among people at work, mental illnesses account for nearly half of all disability-related work absence. According to Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, the Government of Canada’s workplace is especially toxic. Here are excerpts from his address to the delegates at the PIPSC AGM in 2012. Public servants are off work due to diagnosable mental disorders at a rate 300% higher than the general workforce; 48% of all disability claims in the federal workplace are due to depression.
Does the federal government have a psychologically healthy workplace? Here’s how to tell. Are management practices in the federal government protecting or jeopardizing 30 years of gains in physical health and safety against the incursion of a new era of "psycho-social risks"? These risks manifest themselves in chronic job stress, embedded frustration, and pervasive uncertainty on a large scale.
Other questions which reveal whether the government workplace is psychologically healthy include the following. Are organizational objectives and expectations well understood by employees? Are employees given the tools and some discretion over how they perform the work asked of them? Are employees encouraged to ’whistle blow’ on workplace practices that abuse emotional well-being and mental resilience, therby impeding output?
Can a culture of resilience replace cultures of angst and tension? Are commitments to fostering job fulfilment an evident part of the employment contract? Do corporate values put a premium on trust and fairness? Are employees encouraged and trained to understand their role and place in the big picture of the organization and its future? Do policies put work/life balance on the "to do" list of every executive, manager and employee?
At a time of severe economic uncertainty, the choices that employers make – even necessary choices – must be carried out in a manner that reflects human decency, nourishes human dignity, recognizes the purpose and value of work done, and protects all public employees against public stigmatization. This last point is acutely relevant to "civil servants" – as the public refers to these hard-working people.
Has the Government of Canada stigmatized its own employees? The answer must be yes.
This happens when job cuts are announced as "good" news for the country instead of painful adjustments to painful realities. The "cuts" are made in a tone and fashion that "plays to" negative, public stereotypes of "civil servants." Case in point: as a concept, "affected employee" letters can be an important tool to protect employees’ rights and to be clear about what’s happening.
But when "affected employee" letters are sent to very large numbers of employees when decisions about who stays and who goes are months away, this is a good idea gone bad – a healthy concept that has become diseased.
This approach to managing the "cuts" corrupts the integrity of the employment contract by putting all employees – those who stay and those who go – into untenable positions of gross uncertainty – one unto the other. This creates an arbitrary line between what the future means for some and not for others, while rendering uncertain who will be on what side of that line and imposing on all employees the extra demands of the condition we can call "Affected Letter Disease".
This syndrome attacks employees’ self worth, concern for their families, their need to know, their idea of fairness, their trust in the employer, and their appetite to do good work that makes a difference.
Employee representatives can challenge this particular approach to managing the "cuts" as inappropriate and unsound for the promotion, protection and maintenance of "mental health in the workplace" of federal public servants.
"Affected Letter Disease" has the earmarks of an insidious kind of pressure that can eat away long-term at the morale and good health of federal employees on a larger scale. In that light, "Affected Letter Disease" is arguably a public health risk to the workplace of the government and to the employees labouring there. Certainly, at a time of great pain for many, it is a cruel and unusual form of management.
The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on public health, medical research, health care services, employee health benefits and disability insurance and then proceeds to contradict that investment by running a workplace where nearly half of all employees off work due to illness or injury are disabled by depression.
The Mental Health Commission has brought forward standards for psychologically healthy workplaces. The federal government paid for this, and for the Commission itself. The Public Health Agency has informed Canadians that the rise of chronic disorders is public health issue number one in Canada. The federal government paid for this research and, of course, for the Agency over all.
One way or another, federal monies have been used to help Canadians become more informed about the advent of non-infectious and chronic conditions as a defining health question of the 21st century.
So, on one level, the federal government seems to understand there is a mental health crisis facing this country. On the other hand – very close to home – it is blind to its complicity – as an employer – in generating the kinds of health risks that contribute to the crisis in the first place. Chronic job stress is a bona fide workplace health hazard today, no more so than in the federal workplace and other public sector workplaces.
In the federal public workplace, we see garish evidence of pervasive uncertainty, employee isolation, injurious human interaction and bloodless bureaucratic rigidity. In this light, the management and stewardship of public administration in this country is sliding from being something we were proud of to something we should be afraid of because it is claiming the well-being of people employed there. Through the slow grind of layered, anti-common sense, and bloodless administrative evolution of federal workplace practices, we now see a psychopathic bureaucracy in charge – not a bureaucracy of psychopaths – but a runaway "system" of handling human affairs in a less than humanizing way. This round of "e-cuts" is being handled in a manner that contradicts the ethical standards many senior public servants in Canada actively represent.
In the federal workplace, managers must learn to motivate, not disintegrate the cognitive capacities of employees, and learn how to exercise fairness and common sense when carrying out the very difficult decisions of expensive job cuts. By any measure, lay-offs should be conducted with a clear regard for human dignity, decency, and the right to know. Dragging this process out in this way is bad for both those who lose their jobs and those who remain behind. It could be different.
George Bernard Shaw once memorably wrote that some see the world as it is, and ask "why?" Let’s see the world as it might be and ask "why not?" Let’s follow the great man’s lead.
Can we not see in the future, a federal workplace – a public sector workplace – that is psychologically healthy and psychologically safe?
The Government of Canada – the country’s largest employer – should be the first in line to pilot the new national standards for psychologically healthy workplaces introduced in January 2013 by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Let the federal workplace – and public sector workplaces everywhere – demonstrate "leadership by example" in building a new and durable model for psychological health and safety. Let the government workplace be where the solution is found to modern-day chronic job stress instead of serving as a uniquely productive source of that stress.
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