Union Role in Promoting Bully-Free Workplaces

Unions have traditionally been about fairness and dignity in the workplace. However, in order to move toward more desirable practices and policies it is also necessary to recognize and address what we want to move away from; organizational and individual health impacts of bullying as one form of workplace mistreatment. The Bully-Free Workplaces program began as a union initiative in 2008, with a team brought together to research, develop, field test, evaluate and implement an education program to understand and identify workplace bullying. Immediately interest in the program exceeded expectations leading to expansion of program offerings and national and international recognition.

Background and Rationale

In 2010 the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) undertook a significant initiative in launching the Bully-Free Workplaces Program.  The program proved popular from the outset with the commitment to deliver in any workplace we were invited and to welcome everyone to participate in this education.

In 2013 the NSGEU became one of approximately 40 organizations across Canada to take part in a three year national research study implementing the National Standard for Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The work already undertaken in the Bully-Free Workplaces Program aligned closely with the Standard.

The Bully-Free Workplaces program is recognized by Excellence Canada, and endorsed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada; and has been delivered province-wide, nationally and internationally in Denmark, Japan and New Zealand.

Union Role in promoting The Standard and workplace mental health

Unions have two primary levels of responsibility in relation to workplace mental health

  1. advocating for psychological health and safety in the workplace and;
  2. supporting workers who may be experiencing mental health concerns.

This can include influencing policy and intervening to support accommodation, return to work and resolution of any workplace issues. It underscores the importance of continuing education and training within unions and the necessity for ongoing evaluation of programs and quality improvement. Employee relations officers and negotiators have to be knowledgeable not only on the Standard, but on processes for managing complex change.

The union role and sustainable buy-in for The Standard

Implementing The Standard was seen as necessary and a cultural fit for the union as an organization which historically is concerned for justice and fairness in workplaces.  Sustainable buy in relies on;

  • Relationships within unions including members and between the stakeholders encompassing organizational leadership and employees; and support to community organizations also working to implement the Standard
  • This requires a shared vision and goals established by a collaborative community or group with the recognized need to work to create mentally healthy workplaces as much as we work to ensure physically healthy work settings.”
  • Develop consistent wording to align Collective Agreements and employer policies to be compatible with the Standard
  • Reference the Standard, repeatedly and often – there is power in naming.  We cannot name solve a problem we cannot name, e.g., workplace bullying. We need to educate, inform, continuously reflect to evaluate and revise.
  • As an ongoing and continuous process we need to understand and manage complex change.

Creating Sustainable Change in Workplaces

Vision. Sustainable change requires a genuine commitment to the vision of the Standard in promoting workplace mental health and protecting workers from psychological harm.

Skills. Skills, knowledge and information are supported by tools and resources. As  a Union we need to continuously put our own house in order in thereby contributing to the knowledge base and skills of  employee relations officers and negotiators who deal with members and their employers.

Incentive.  The business rationale is an incentive to the employer in terms of reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, short and long term disability claims, improved morale, productivity and company reputation, and lessoning the risk of legal action with associated costs, are part of the incentive campaign for employers to adopt into practice and policy,.

Resources. Knowledge of resources, such as ‘Assembling the Pieces’, available through the Mental Health Commission of Canada,  tool kits, sharing with a collaborative group, and promoting partnering  roles between the union and the employer has the shared goal of improved individual and workplace mental health.

Action Plan. Unions always need to devise and revise action plans both internal and external to the organization.  A plan needs to reflect the nature of the work and workplace culture to promote buy-in and a willingness to adopt, both at the worker level, through the local and local executive, and at a leadership level with the employer.

Measure/Evaluate. A consistent change model needs to be applied to avoid, confusion, frustration, anxiety, false starts, or change that is too gradual to be measured for effectiveness. This requires collaboration with the employer on what needs to be measured and how to convey the results.

To have the requirements of the Standard successfully built into union collective agreements and developed into employer policies is best accomplished with a Board of Directors recommendation; i.e. need to access all levels of an organization for willingness to implement.

Collective agreements are negotiated contracts which consider the business of employee and employer dealings and as such are not necessarily focused on relationship concerns and relationship building between the worker, the union and the employer. However, both contracts and relationships need parameters, for example, demystifying Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S) by continuously:

  • Referencing the Standard –do the preparation to be knowledgeable and to feel competent
  • Educating the employer; and
  • Encouraging the employer to adopt the Standard outside of the Collective Agreement
  • Have the Standard recognized as benefiting the workplace – not one more thing to be grieved
  • Ensure consistent and commonly understood language between the employer policy and the collective agreement

The NSGEU, Bully-Free Workplaces Program is recognized by Excellence Canada and endorsed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada as an means to promote psychologically healthier workplace and is adaptable to any workplace setting. For more information please contact us.

If your union is interested in getting further information, please contact our Bully-Free Workplace Union Consultant:

Joan Jessome, Consultant
Bully-Free Workplaces Program
Email:  joanbjessome@gmail.com