“Willful Blindness”: Is Your Workplace at Risk Psychologically?

Posted by: Denise Hall on juin 8, 2015 8:30

The subject of my upcoming book is the psychological health of professional helpers’ workplaces. The material used for this blog is partly from the manuscript completed in 2013 for my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. My purpose is to bring more awareness to workers and their supervisors in hopes of preventing psychological injuries at work.

energy-73336_640Recent initiatives by progressive thinking agencies, government, and health and safety organizations establishing guidelines for psychologically healthy workplaces are the topic of conferences and workshops. Discussion is beginning to happen in workplaces and with health care providers. One of the main reasons for this initiative is the recognition that psychologically unhealthy workplaces cost money in terms of absenteeism, high turnover, lost productivity, health care, and insurance costs.

This initiative is largely in its infancy similarly with physically unsafe workplaces years ago. In British Columbia WorkSafe BC and the provincial government developed Bill14 in this regard. This piece of legislation also encompasses bullying and harassment in the workplace. The legislation came about because of the potential for losses to employers if employees filed suits in court over mental stress. In essence, this came about because it was going to cost $$, not necessarily because it is the best thing for workplaces.

Tackling the subject of workplace health is a complicated one in the current economic and political climate. The recession we have been through and the restructuring of the economy has left many people unemployed or underemployed. Many are afraid to risk their jobs by speaking up or leaving for better working conditions. When people have few options they choose to stay or apply for long-term disability (if they have it). Employees assistance programs also are the service providers dealing with stressed workers.

David Posen MD (2013) author of Is Work Killing You? maintains that there is a “conspiracy of silence” in many workplaces that is extremely damaging to the health of individuals and the organization as a whole. He believes there is a level of denial akin to an “elephant in the room”. There is what he calls a “willful blindness”. “It’s time to open our eyes to the obvious. It’s well past time that we should admit there is a serious problem in the workplace that’s been going on for years and we’ve chosen to ignore it. Pretending its not there has only allowed it to get worse.”

For decades the issue of workplace stress has been portrayed as an individual one with standard responses such as “ it sounds like you are not happy here and you need to look for another job”, particularly if one speaks up about workplace conditions. Few responses to workplace stress have examined organizational factors. Individual efforts to deal with stress can be helpful. Lowe (2004) outlines the characteristics of healthy workplaces however; his opinion is that getting healthy is not sustainable when a person has to work within an unhealthy dysfunctional or traumatized organization. When employers’ do take responsibility they develop wellness programs to provide workers with skills to manage their stress. As Lowe has pointed out this only goes so far and addressing the organization’s health becomes the next step.

Martin Shain (2000) suggests that making changes at the organizational level in the area of “demand and control” would improve conditions. Also excessive stress is created when basic human needs are ignored in work tasks that are structured for the benefit of the employer and where little attention is paid to the employee’s emotional and physical wellbeing in the process. The term he uses to describe employers’ responsibilities is “due diligence”. Employers must do their due diligence to prevent placing their employees in “harms way”. Shain suggests that if they put their employees in harm’s way they are wholly responsible.

Unfortunately, many employers ignore the “elephant in the room” and end up paying for it in long-term disability costs, absenteeism, and high staff turnover. They forget that it is the people they hire that are the core of the organization and they are the most important resource they have.

In my work with injured workers I heard many accounts of dysfunctional workplaces. A common example is workplaces that do not provide the needed staffing that in turn contributes to an injury that the worker has to bear for the rest of their life.

Overworked staff are at risk for accidents. Preventable accidents cost money and needless suffering.

These examples illustrate that it is well past time that we address the psychological health of workers. Bill 14 has helped in the regard and I understand that employers now have to demonstrate that they have a plan to prevent injuries to the psychological health of their workers. I am looking forward to the changes that will emerge from the initiative.

If you think that individual counselling or consulting services will help improve the psychological health of your workplace contact me at office: 604-685-4666 or Mobile 604-562-9130 for a complimentary 30 minute consultation.




*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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