Amidst all the hubbub over the proposed New Prosperity mine, the ongoing Senate scandal and the antics of Canada's, perhaps the world's, most colourful mayor, Rob Ford, some major news for both employers and workers in B.C. was lost in the noise.
New rules took effect Friday that allow WorksafeBC to award benefits to workers who are diagnosed with mental disorders caused by bullying and harassment in the workplace. On the surface, it sounds long overdue. No one should have to endure so much grief at work, from their boss, their supervisor and/or their colleagues, that it makes them mentally ill.
WorksafeBC understands the potential implications of these new rules so the corporation is going slow on implementation and enforcement, according to a story this week by the Canadian Press. This isn't something particularly new. The Citizen has had a workplace harassment policy in place for years and many union contracts have clauses to address these issues.
What's new is WorkSafeBC's more direct involvement and the effect it could have in the workplace, particularly for small businesses. As the provincial minister of state for small business, Naomi Yamamoto, proudly pointed out Friday in Prince George, 98 per cent of the employers in B.C. are small businesses (50 employees or less), and 82 per cent of that group have five or less staff members. Is the government getting into the business of policing bullying on the job just another paperwork headache for small businesses already burdened with excessive regulation?
Dealing with these kinds of complaints gets slippery, especially for employers and managers, in a hurry. If an employer finds that one employee has been bullying another and disciplines the bully, can the bully turn around and argue their employer is bullying them? Can they go on stress leave because of the anxiety that may have been caused by a two-day unpaid suspension for harassing a colleague?
And there's the problem with assigning cause.
How is WorksafeBC planning to judge anxiety, depression or any other mental illness that was caused by workplace harassment? To do so is to exclude any other possible causes, such as personal finances, sick children, marital strife and so on. When the worker's entire home and work situation is analyzed, how can WorksafeBC put a number then on what degree the unwanted stress of the workplace is creating an illness that merits time off work and benefits paid?
But WorksafeBC won't be allowed to do that analysis because it's a violation of privacy.
Employers could find themselves on the hook for "causing" mental illness in the workplace to workers who showed up for work already suffering from conditions brought on by their private lives.
Employers and managers can still take reasonable action with their staff but what is reasonable? When does a "pull up your socks" speech stray from hands-on management to intimidation?
Every worker has an obligation to report harassment to managers under the new rules but what happens if a worker is happy that a manager is giving another worker a well-deserved dressing-down for slacking off on the job and making everyone else cover for their laziness? Is the first worker now condoning a bullying culture at work?
For now, WorkSafeBC seems to have set the bar high on what justifies employee benefits due to workplace harassment. About 700 claims of mistreatment have been received since July 2012 (less than half of one per cent of the injury claims received annually) but WorkSafeBC only accepted about 40 of them, as well as another 50 where workers were threatened with violence by members of the public.
Those small numbers, along with the murkiness of both the problem and any possible solutions, should be enough reason for WorksafeBC to actively encourage harassment-free workplaces but go slow on enforcement.
-- Managing editor Neil Godbout