A few days ago, the CSQ launched an important campaign designed to raise awareness among its members and the general population about unhealthy management practices which lead to physical and psychological health issues.

Under the “It’s not in your head” theme, the campaign puts original and striking wigs to good use to illustrate the very real psychosocial risk factors that can make us sick in our workplaces.

The campaign takes on management practices that lead to overwhelmed workers doubting their own skills, but also encourages them to act by letting their union know about the situations they are dealing with and to take an active part in a collective action.

Aggravating risk factors

Notwithstanding a few exceptions, the scientific literature is virtually unanimous as to what constitutes risk factors. In Québec, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) identifies the seven following factors:

  1. Heavy workloads and time constraints;
  2. Poor recognition of efforts and results;
  3. Lack of autonomy and influence at work;
  4. Job insecurity;
  5. Lack of support from co-workers and supervisors;
  6. Violence and psychological harassment;
  7. Lack of organizational justice.

Luc Bouchard and Matthew Gapmann, CSQ Occupational Health and Safety advisors, explain that over time, these risk factors can lead to an individual having serious health issues such as headaches, trouble concentrating, memory loss, irritability, fatigue, digestive problems, exhaustion, cardiovascular disease or depression. They can even fuel and exacerbate each other, increasing their impact on the affected person’s health.

“For instance, precarity and job insecurity can foster a climate of violence and psychological harassment by forcing people to compete for available jobs, in addition to undermining the social support needed among colleagues. Furthermore, an increased workload, combined with little recognition of efforts exerted to perform quality work can create a sense of injustice within the organization,” states Luc Bouchard.

Singling out the real culprit

The campaign singles out the real culprit: an unhealthy work environment that can be changed by collective action.

“The phenomenon of work-induced illness has an impact on an increasing number of workers. Too often, these individuals wrongfully believe that they are responsible for their illness. Others start to question their competence, because they are unable to adapt or conform to the unreasonable demands of their job,” adds Sonia Éthier, CSQ President.

“And when it results in sick leave, it is not uncommon that the diagnosis is an adjustment disorder, as if we should be able to adapt to harassment and violence or to work overload, with its unreasonable pace and intensity. This is totally absurd,” she continues.

The limits of legal or individual solutions

In light of the hardship experienced, many have opted for individual solutions, such as a voluntary reduction of working hours or taking unpaid time off, or even deferred salary leave.

Even though these solutions may give a bit of relief for some, they do not tackle the problem itself, namely the organization of work. They are nothing but band-aid solutions. They can even play a role in fostering greater risks by, for instance, increasing the number of precarious alternative jobs, or by exacerbating the workload of those who stay at work.

A number of collective agreements, particularly in the health and social service sector, include provisions that allow employees to challenge an excessive workload by way of a grievance.

“However, providing the necessary proof is challenging and a ‘normal’ task is not defined. Ultimately, an arbitrator will settle the matter. Other current collective agreements in our sectors do not include or have very few guidelines as to psychosocial risk factors, except for the right to work in an environment devoid of psychological harassment. Due to the lack of specific provisions, it would be unlikely for a grievance to be upheld and, even when there is a chance of success, there are lengthy delays,” adds Matthew Gapmann.

Collective action to bring about change

Isn’t developing an approach based on the collective defence of the interests of workers at the very core of unionism? While collective negotiations are the preferred tool of the labour movement, the sheer size of the structures in public and parapublic sectors makes it difficult to find solutions to adequately deal with issues stemming, for instance, from the nit-picking and bureaucratic management style of a given manager. The specifics of each work environment bring us inevitably back to the local dimension of the institution.

“A one-size-fits-all solution which would overcome every challenge we are facing simply doesn’t exist. Of course, the union has a significant role to play at a macro level to bring the employer to adopt healthy organizational practices, putting people first, before performance and productivity goals, and focusing on a more humane management of its resources instead of just managing human resources,” explains Sonia Ethier.

She points out that collective action provides support for members dealing with psychosocial risks so that they may act together, at the local level, to eliminate these risks or to minimize their consequences. Studies have clearly shown how important collective action is when addressing this phenomenon.

“As such, our campaign embodies the type of union action sought during by our congress in 2015 and falls within the framework for action that we adopted during our congress in June 2018, which allows us to act collectively to offset unhealthy work organization. Together, we wield considerable power, and our campaign underlines this, and it is so very true. Union history is full of such examples,” she concludes.

Useful tools

The CSQ has developed leaflets on each of the seven risk factors. For each factor, the leaflet describes what it entails, what the signs or manifestations are, as well as the characteristics associated with a healthy and risk-free work environment. Members who are dealing with this type of problem are encouraged to inform their union of the situation in order for the union to know what is going on and take action to support the member.

It should also be noted that a guide developed for unions also provides a simple six-step course of action to help the individual affected by one or more psychosocial risk factor, as well any other individual in that work environment dealing with the same problem.

The union is encouraged to bring these individuals together so that they may, together, identify the context and issues at hand, point out the adverse health effects, pinpoint the impact on their work, put forward actions to correct the situation and, finally, carry out the actions needed to implement solutions.

The employer and his obligations

In a unionized workplace, work organization is the last line of defence for an employer’s management rights, which explains their reluctance to discuss the matter. And yet, employers have obligations in terms of occupational health and safety that have an impact on work organization.

Under the Act respecting occupational health and safety[1], the employer has a general obligation to take the necessary measures to protect the health, in its broader sense, and ensure the safety and physical well-being of his workers. He must, in particular use methods and techniques intended for the identification, control and elimination of risks to the safety or health of the workers. He must also ensure that the organization of the work and the working procedures and techniques do not adversely affect the safety or health of the workers.

To learn more

  • CSQ Website, Occupational Health and Safety: lacsq.org/sst
  • Website of the Institut national de santé publique du Québec: inspq.qc.ca/publications/2372
  • Website of the Chaire en gestion de la santé organisationnelle et de la sécurité du travail, Université Laval: cgsst.com

[1] Act respecting occupational health and safety (2018). CQLR, chapter S-2.1, section 51, Québec Official Publisher.