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The front doors of the House of Commons are opened for the arrival of the speakers parade on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Nov. 30, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Sabreena Delhon is the executive director of the Samara Centre for Democracy. Hannah Sung is a co-founder of the Media Girlfriends production company. They are producers of Humans of the House, a six-part podcast series about parliamentarians.

What makes for a good workplace culture? Free snacks? No-meeting Fridays? How about just the basics, such as time to eat, rest and have a life outside of work?

On Monday, 338 members of Parliament will return to work at the House of Commons, and we have suggestions for what could improve their workplace culture.

Our suggestions come directly from in-depth interviews we conducted over the course of 18 months with more than two dozen former MPs from across the political spectrum. They shared in their own words what the job of a parliamentarian is really like. Unfortunately, they painted a bleak picture, describing life in Ottawa as “a grind,” with health effects that made the House of Commons, at times, “the worst place” they had ever worked. This matters, because their working conditions, through the policies they enact, become our social conditions. Research shows that when people are happier and feel psychologically safe, a workplace thrives and becomes dramatically more productive – therefore, a safer and more effective parliamentary workplace is a critical step for making Canadian democracy more responsive and representative. We decided to dig deeper into these former MPs’ insights on the House of Commons, to learn about parliamentary patterns that need disrupting, and changes that would make a meaningful difference.

Freed of the political pressures of answering to party leaders, political adversaries and the sleeping giant of angry social-media mobs, the former MPs we spoke with were surprisingly open.

No one should have to put up with a workplace that is a “horror” or a “nightmare,” but that’s how former NDP MP Cheryl Hardcastle described working in the House of Commons. She wasn’t alone in vividly recounting the routine heckling and hostility she witnessed among her colleagues. Ms. Hardcastle described a moment during Question Period when a senior male MP shouted at a younger female cabinet minister, telling her to “sit down, sit down! You’re in over your head, just sit down.”

What does it say about a workplace if yelling insults at your colleague is viewed not just as normal, but in fact productive behaviour?

Former environment minister Catherine McKenna often questioned the culture of Parliament in her early days on the job: “Why are there not normal practices here? Why aren’t there normal rules about, you know, not keeping people up all night for days on end with votes that were [held] to make a point?” She described a short-sighted, toxic organizational culture that unnecessarily put people at risk. “It’s almost like harassment,” she said, “It’s like this little cage match. Everyone’s screaming.”

There have been recent changes in the right direction: In January, 2021, a long overdue harassment policy was implemented, mandating MP and staff participation in training sessions on workplace conduct. The result was heightened awareness: The number of allegations of workplace violence and harassment in the House of Commons rose from two complaints in 2020-21 to 13 complaints in 2022-23. These included allegations of sexual harassment, violence (including psychological violence) and discrimination, and involved parliamentary employees but also third-party workers (e.g. outside consultants). While the complaints are disturbing, the trend (a 60-per-cent increase year-over-year) indicates that a policy against harassment has created a collective understanding of what’s acceptable in this workplace.

Additionally, we’ve seen the creation of the first parental leave program for MPs, and hybrid sittings, which were first implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and have recently become a permanent provision. Our interviews revealed the mental and physical toll that constant travel can take on MPs, especially for those who live in ridings located far from Ottawa. Hybrid proceedings can help recover travel time and reduce expenses to the public purse while protecting the health and well-being of MPs.

These changes are indicators of a work environment striving to be more inclusive, representative and modern. But what other changes would make an important difference for the MPs we interviewed?

Let’s start with the first days on the job: Increasing the number of opportunities for newer MPs to learn from the knowledge and expertise of former parliamentarians would make a big difference. The lack of management training and onboarding support in those early days came up time and time again during our interviews. This was a common factor regardless of political party or previous work experience. One way forward is to take a step back from the sense of exceptionalism that pervades the House of Commons, and approach it not just as a vital space for the functioning of our country, but also as a professional work environment. While the position of elected representative (or staffer) is an important and serious one, it is also, simply, a job – one that shouldn’t require suffering harassment or abuse.

Members of Parliament come from many different career backgrounds. Some will be hiring and managing people for the very first time. The sooner new MPs know the ropes, the more effective they can be at their jobs, representing constituents and navigating policy decisions in a complex workplace culture – a culture where, as former Conservative MP Peter Kent cautions, “one has to learn a certain amount of restraint.”

The level of authenticity we achieved in our conversations with these former MPs is something that the world of politics (and its relationship with news media) doesn’t always leave room for. The ex-MPs we spoke with were clearly eager to have this rare opportunity to be heard as their whole selves. More of that in our society (and in each and every workplace) would go a long way.

If the House wants to attract and retain high-quality individuals with varied training and innovative problem-solving abilities, it needs to be a safer, more psychologically supportive workplace – and that’s something all Canadians deserve.

The former MPs that we spoke to shared their stories to bring awareness to their challenges and to help evolve life in Parliament. They brought hope to these conversations, which centred not only on what needs fixing in our politics, but also on what’s working and could be even better. In an era where the future of work is rapidly transforming, we believe that the House of Commons can meet this moment by building a healthier work environment that enables a more representative democracy for all of us.

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