HRM exclusive: Unifor’s Sari Sairanen

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Incredibly successful public awareness campaigns have educated corporate Canada on the importance of mental health issues in the workplace – but there’s only so much employers can do.

HRM caught up with Unifor’s national director of health and safety Sari Sairanen to find out what barriers are standing in the way and how HR professionals can overcome them.
 
HRM: Employers are more tuned-in than ever to the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace but is there anything an HR professional can do if the employee hasn’t disclosed their condition?
 
SS: Stigma is still a huge problem in many of our workplaces and an obstacle for workers to come forward.In addition, we may be aware of mental health issues however the culture of the workplace has not adopted practical action plans.It thus becomes difficult for a worker to come forward and believe they will be assisted and allowed to heal and succeed in his or her return to work.
 
HRM: Cases of mismanaged disability claims related to mental illness are legion. Please distil the basic mistakes employers are making.
 
SS: Unfortunately there is an assumption of guilt until proven innocent which may stem from a relationship of distrust.In addition, uneducated guesses are made about medical conditions which contribute to miscommunications and strained labour relations.
 
HRM: How successful have employer-sponsored wellness programs been in reducing mental illness in the Canadian workplace?
 
SS: Wellness programs are good secondary or early detection interventions as they educate people about symptoms and possible coping skills.However, a combination of primary (at the source), secondary (early detection) and tertiary (help the injured) interventions is needed to achieve a meaningful degree of prevention and protection.
 
Prevention experts say that the further “upstream” one is from a negative health outcome, the likelier it is that any intervention will be effective.In short, it is important to be proactive instead of reactive and have a joint program with worker participation.
 
HRM: What do employers need to be doing to get workers back on the job sooner and to reduce relapse?
 
SS: It is important to cooperate with medical requirements, to provide appropriate accommodations suitable to the disability, use unbiased medical expertise and prevent injuries from occurring.
 
In addition, it is beneficial for all parties to know what are the policies and objectives of a safe and early return to work.A collective recognition goes a long way - an early return to productive employment at the appropriate time can assist ill or injured workers achieve quicker rehabilitation and allow them to maintain their personal dignity and financial stability.
 
Finally, minimize barriers, create an environment of trust and respect in a positive manner without re-percussions.
 
HRM: Is the latter even possible?
 
SS: Anything is possible with proper planning and guidance.Our Joint Return to Work Committees work together to ensure injured workers are returning at the appropriate time and in a manner which assists in their recovery.An emotionally well balanced worker is an asset to any organization, to society and family all around.
 
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