Bill Borger is familiar with the construction industry’s stereotype – a rough and tough group of workers whose common tongue is swearing and shouting.
“In the traditional construction industry, that’s the way you used to deal with people – you yelled at them. It was an era of yelling and people just accepted it,” says the president of the Borger Group of Companies, which employs more than 350 workers across Alberta’s construction industry. “But every study has proven that’s not the way to run an organization.”
So instead of accepting it, Borger sought to help change the industry’s image.
About seven years ago, his group became the first construction company in Canada to become Respect in the Workplace certified – a Respect Group initiative based on the well-known Respect in Sport program. The online course is now mandatory for all new employees, and all staff need to get re-certified every three years.
“We believe that everyone has a right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace,” says Borger. “We also believe that the interaction between team members needs to be healthy to be safe.”
The efforts have paid off. Borger’s company has been voted by Canadian Occupational Safety as one of Canada’s safest employers for the past five years. And most recently, it was named Canada’s Best Health & Safety Culture.
Respect Group co-founder Wayne McNeil says business leaders need to be discussing respectful workplaces in the same sentences as productivity, recruitment and retention. That means extending the conversation to include issues such as training around cultural appropriation, opioids and recognizing the signs of mental illness.
“Today, we’re talking a lot about employee well-being in the workplace – not just physical safety, but psychological safety, which was a term that wasn’t around four years ago,” says McNeil, whose organization currently has more than 250 Respect in the Workplace clients.
“We’re talking about inclusion. We’re talking about diversity. We’re talking about these things because if you have engaged employees who are healthy psychologically, they are going to feel far more apt to contribute to the company. And the company is going to get a lot greater results through their work.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates poor mental health and illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion per year. The Conference Board of Canada says $20 billion of that is due to lost productivity.
Typical barometers of unhealthy workplaces include escalating sick time and benefits usage, as well as an increase in long-term disability costs. CMHA says mental health-related disability on its own accounts for 30 per cent of total claims in Canada, but 70 per cent of costs.
“We’re talking about it because we’re starting to realize the impact that poor mental health has on a business’ bottom line in a real concrete sense,” says Jordan Friesen, national associate director, workplace mental health, Canadian Mental Health Association.
“Businesses are starting to realize that there is a financial case for having a healthy workforce.”
Friesen adds initiatives such as Bell’s Let’s Talk Day and CMHA’s Mental Health Week are shining a light on the importance of mental health, as well as the consequences of not taking care of it.
“Those two are colliding. You see that business case and that ethical case for promoting health come together in the workplace because, ultimately, we bring our whole selves to work,” he says.
Other more qualitative indications of unhealthy workplaces include employees expressing concern around stress (47 per cent of Canadians say work is the most stressful thing in their lives, according to CMHA), as well as high staff turnover.
The Respect in the Workplace program has been, “a huge retention tool in that it’s changing the way people are interacting,” says Borger. “I also believe it has helped to reduce turnover – not turnover because they took the course but because their peers did.”
Businesses also need to consider the legal implications of not properly training their workforce around issues such as respect and mental health. Earlier this year, extensive changes to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act came into effect via Bill 30 that places increased requirements on employers to ensure workers are not subjected to workplace harassment, and an expanded duty to report workplace incidents.
Previously, employers in Alberta were only responsible for protecting the physical safety of employees when it came to workplace violence. Now, it includes psychological safety, which brings in factors such as harassment and bullying.
“Organizations are required to do proper training,” says Janet Salopek, Calgary-based president and senior consultant with Salopek & Associates. “They have to do training for their managers and employees around harassment and workplace violence.”
Others are being proactive in light of the #MeToo movement, wanting to both mitigate the chances of it happening in their workplace, as well as establishing a legal footing if later challenged in court, she says.
“Those claims can be very expensive if they are not handled properly – expensive in that they are costly dollar-wise, they tie up a lot of resources and you may not get your employee back and productive,” says Salopek.
They also tend to transcend the size of companies. A common misconception is workplace issues are limited to mid- to large-size employers that have more diverse workforces and the budgets to match.
McNeil says small businesses face the same issues, and it’s equally as critical to address – especially if a small business has what he calls one BAHD (bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination) employee.
“It could be the boss who can very easily undermine an organization in a heartbeat. The collateral damage of that creates a very toxic environment,” he says, noting his organization’s clients run the gamut of mom-and-pops to governments and universities.
“The bottom line is no company is exempt. If it’s about a positive culture – and I think every company should strive for that – then you need to have some foundational training.”
Salopek adds it just takes one claim to put an employer into a position where they are reacting, putting their brand at risk and tying up resources.
“It doesn’t matter how many employees you have, you need to make sure you have a healthy workplace or you’re at risk,” she says.
Friesen adds that while training is an important foundational tool, so too is shifting culture – and that starts at the leadership level.
“We try to have an intentional conversation with leaders to help them think differently and make that connection between building a mentally healthy workplace,” he says. “And then (we expand to focus on) the benefit that’s going to have on their employees, their bottom line, as well as mitigating hot-button issues that they would otherwise have to respond to.”
Borger agrees, saying, “It is just a tool that’s available to us. Without proper mentorship or management or coaching, there is not a program that’s going to have a massive impact, anywhere. It’s just a bit more of people walking the walk and understanding what is and what is not allowed in the workplace.”