Psychological safety is the next big thing in HR. Psychological safety posits the existence of an employer’s duty to provide a working environment that’s free of harassment, bullying and other behaviours that inflict mental stress. Currently, there is no specific psychological safety law in Canada. But the non-governmental Canadian Standards Association has taken the first step toward creating one by publishing a voluntary standard called the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Here’s a look at the CSA standard and what it portends.
OVERVIEW OF STANDARD
History: CSA published the first draft of the Standard on Nov. 1, 2011; the comment period closed on Jan. 6, 2012; and the final version is expected in late summer.
The Standard’s Purpose: The Standard is designed to promote “psychological safety” in the workplace, which is broadly defined as a “state of well-being in which the individual can realize his or her own abilities, cope with normal stresses of life [and] work productively.”
What the Standard Requires: The Standard would require employers to draft a policy stating the company’s commitment to psychological health and safety system and laying out the responsibilities of different groups within the organization. For example, “leaders” are expected to lead in a “positive way,” make psychological health and safety part of their decision making and engage employees. It would also require employers to implement a psychological health safety (PHS) system that includes:
The concept of an employer’s psychological safety obligation has been emerging for the better part of a decade. But thus far, such duties have come from stretching old laws, e.g., extending OHS workplace violence requirements to harassment, broadening workers’ comp coverage of mental stress and making a poison work environment grounds for constructive dismissal. The CSA Standard is the first attempt to regulate psychological safety head on. And, to be quite candid, it does so in a fairly onerous way.
Of course, CSA standards aren’t law. But voluntary standards can and often do acquire the force of law over time. The most direct way for this to happen is when the voluntary standard is incorporated by reference into a law, e.g., an OHS regulation requires employers to adopt measures required by a particular CSA standard.
In addition, courts and tribunals often rely on voluntary standards as bench marks, best practices or industry standards in evaluating whether employers did enough to promote safety. Thus, it may be harder for a company to prove due diligence if it didn’t meet a voluntary standard; conversely, complying with a voluntary standard is often strong evidence in the employer’s favour.
The bottom line: If and when it’s adopted, the CSA Standard will establish a standard of what employers are expected to do to promote psychological safety in the workplace.