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Chief research and development officer of work force productivity, Morneau Shepell, Toronto

Are respectful-workplace policies negatively impacting your employees' mental health?

On the surface, this question may not appear to be logical, considering that the spirit of a respectful-workplace policy is quite straight forward: to set the minimal standard for civil behaviour in the workplace with respect to bullying, discrimination and harassment. The primary objectives of a respectful-workplace policy are to define a standard, be a deterrent and provide guidance on how incivility is to be managed within the organization, from conflict resolution, investigations and discipline, up to termination.

In some provinces, occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation, such as Ontario bills C-168 and 132, holds employers accountable for not only putting respectful-workplace policies in place, but also for enforcing them.

The intention behind respectful-workplace policies and OHS legislation makes sense. However, the process to defend one's rights can have a negative effect on a victim's mental health because of unintended consequences.

Consider the example of Jill, who is being verbally abused and shamed by her direct manager. The manager constantly complains about the quality of her work and regularly threatens to fire her. As well, he makes lewd comments about her body image. The manager is calculated, and only makes these comments to Jill when they're alone.

The stresses of these interactions are taking a toll on Jill's mental health. She's a single mother with three small children and no other financial support. The day-to-day stress that Jill is under to take care of all the demands of her personal life and her job is challenging. With the additional stress of having an abusive manager, she feels as if she's going to break. Encouraged by two of her closest work friends to talk to the human resources department to have the abuse stop, Jill summons a brief burst of courage and meets with HR to make a complaint.

HR is professional and engages Jill in a difficult conversation in a caring and supporting manner, but she quickly learns how hard self-advocating can be.

HR asks Jill what she has done so far to stop the abuse

Jill has said nothing; she's too scared. This is where the unintended consequences begin. HR reminds Jill that the respectful-workplace policy recommends confronting unwanted behaviour immediately, to set a boundary. Although Jill was trained in the policy, at no point was she tested or trained to determine if she is capable of advocating for herself if threatened. Many of these policies are written through a legal lens and have little consideration for human behaviour. The HR professional trying to understand Jill's case through questioning concludes that Jill needs support and will require help. Jill starts to wonder whether she has done something wrong and becomes increasingly nervous.

HR asks if Jill wants to file a harassment complaint

Jill responds, "I think so, if that means HR can get this bullying and harassment to stop." As HR explains the process with respect to investigation and timeline, Jill's internal dialogue begins to run with many terrifying "what ifs." Another unintended consequence is the mental strain that the due diligence and investigation processes can have on the victim's mental health. Not everyone has the resiliency and resolve to confront a harasser or to defend themselves. Within 20 minutes, Jill believes she may have made a mistake and is thinking about how to get this conversation to stop. Her level of fear from doing what her two colleagues suggested has resulted in her becoming terrified of what could happen if she's not believed. The HR person is supportive, but determines that a process that could take up to two months to fully investigate and end this matter is too overwhelming for Jill to process. They suggest that there are things they can do to create space between Jill and her manager.

At this point, a percentage of people such as Jill will proceed, while others may withdraw because of the perceived stress and fear. In cases such as Jill's, without a complainant's testimony, it's difficult for an employer to act because the process that's designed to protect both victim and accused requires evidence to make a decision. The goal of a well-written and well-implemented respectful-workplace policy is to create a fair and level playing field that facilitates social justice.

What an employer can do to reduce the negative impact a workplace policy has on employees' mental health

When designing a respectful-workplace policy and training, consider the competencies and support systems that can support potential victims to self-advocate. Such training would include elements of resiliency and coping skills that are designed to assist employees to prepare and develop foundation skills for self-advocating.

In the policy design, provide clarity on how to prevent and react to boundary violations, misunderstandings and unresolved conflict. These can be dealt with using a design where the focus is on learning, reconciliation and resolution. This can help prevent winners and losers, which often results from a situation that's not dealt with early and goes to an investigation.

When creating respectful-workplace training for employees, use situational learning, which can help them practice self-advocating, so that they can understand what they can do if they are a victim or are falsely accused. Make the goal of training promoting psychological safety and growth, rather than just checking an administrative checkbox.

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