This Labour Day, let’s take on the mental health pandemic

This opinion piece, written by National Director Ken Neumann, appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021.

This physically distanced Labour Day is a moment to reflect on a critical challenge facing unions and employers: addressing the worsening mental health crisis. Exacerbated by COVID-19, this crisis is a secondary pandemic, quietly brooding but ferocious.

A household survey by Statistics Canada during the pandemic found that one in five Canadians had symptoms of at least one of three mental disorders: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, LifeWorks’ Mental Health Index Report found 80 per cent of Canadians reported the pandemic having a negative effect on their mental health.

United Steelworkers union (USW) members have reported similar impacts: “extreme feelings of isolation and intermittent loss of hope that things will get better”; “fear that I’ll lose my mind before things get better”; “feeling overworked and drained”; “work is overwhelming.” Hundreds of USW members report feeling burned out, lonely, depressed and anxious, and that is just a small snapshot of the workforce. 

Even pre-pandemic, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reported 500,000 Canadians missing work each week due to mental illness. Mental health issues present challenges for morale, retention, absenteeism, productivity and overall wellness. 

This is a workplace crisis because trauma, stress and illness follow us to work, as surely as job-related frustrations follow us home. It is not enough to create safe, supportive spaces away from work. Employers and unions must assertively develop programs, policies and greater awareness to support mental well-being. The reality for many workers is that workplaces are sources of strife. This is why unions steadfastly push for stronger workplace and legislative frameworks to combat bullying, harassment and violence — occupational hazards that chip away at one’s mental well-being. We take the same attitude toward racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and employment precarity — all health and safety issues. 

The USW is taking a multi-pronged approach, partnering with employers where possible to create stronger support mechanisms to address psychological safety and mental well-being. 

In some cases, union bargaining committees negotiate mental health training for all employees, including managers. This is important because management often dictates the climate of a given workplace. USW peer educators also offer weeklong mental health courses for union members, building awareness, addressing employer obligations around accommodations and highlighting the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace — the first such standard in the world. It sets guidelines for employers to create workplaces that prioritize psychological safety and positive mental health. 

In B.C., the union has partnered with forestry sector employers to create the Safety Advisory Foundation for Education and Research (SAFER). It focuses on physical safety in the industry and leads the way on programming such as tracking mental health issues, creating mental health awareness on the job, mindfulness initiatives, mental health first-aid courses for employees, and more.

Much like physical health and safety advocacy, where unions have excelled, mental health must be a priority of equal importance. Our collective well-being depends on it.

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