One of the great challenges for organizations trying to understand what to make of Canada’s relatively new voluntary standards for psychological health and safety is to wrap their minds around where to begin.

mhcc_logoThere is absolutely no question that the emergence of Canada’s new National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the spring of 2013 was a landmark step forward.

We can be proud to be citizens of a country in which government, the private sector and the not-for-profit Canadian Standards Association could come together and create such an important new framework aimed at building a safer and healthier society.

However, while the architects and supporters of these new national standards have followed up with a series of how-to guides, to anyone on the outside looking in this still seems like a tough and complicated thing to take on.

Before I describe what I offer up as the most efficient and effective start point, it is important to discuss the context for how this important new standard has been brought forward.

It offers considerable comfort and direction on the administrative and system side of a psychologically healthier workplace because of the framework it was built upon. For those seeking to accelerate the people and culture change side toward a more positive, inspiring, healthier and safer workplace culture, the path is not clear.

The new standards have been laid out in a way that makes them easier to integrate into existing OHS ramps or other systems that rely upon documentation of processes. This is particularly useful for large organizations because there’s a well-known framework for implementation.

Standards_bookThis is very much a left-brain document, organized and designed to complement and build upon existing occupational health and safety regimes that govern workplace practices in many organizations, particularly larger ones.  It contains not only the 13 recommended standards for compliance but also tightly organized information on how to plan, implement and evaluate progress. The reality is that large and well-organized institutions with mature OHS systems will be the first adopters of the new standards because they have the wherewithal to do it.

Meanwhile the widespread integration of these voluntary standards across smaller businesses or other organizations unfamiliar with such advanced concepts will take much longer. Thus, while this linear connection with past Occupational Health & Safety policies and procedures is one of its strengths, it also carries with it the inherent limitations of the system we have built over the last 100 years.

The limitations are these: systems, policies, rules, regulations, punishment, discipline and dogma do not move people to change to safer, healthier workplace cultures. People do this. I discovered, from the inquest into my son Sean’s death at work, that lives lost and harm inflicted is not about rules or policies. It’s about people.

The safest places to work in the world are those in which everyone there has the other person’s back. There are most certainly systems and processes that support such cultures. But at its core, psychologically and physically safe and healthy workplaces are all about people doing the right things because they share the same values and own outcomes together.

So it is time for the imagination and inspiration in our creative right-brains to meet the structured systemic nature of our left-brains halfway.  We need to know exactly where we want to go with the people who will take us there before we begin documenting, planning, and implementing systems.  This goes beyond simply consulting people about program options along the way.

The sweet spot comes at the very beginning with an organization-wide focus on values.  What kind of culture do we want to have? What do we expect of others and ourselves?  Why are we working here – what is our shared purpose?

We must set out to engage, enable and energize people to take part in redefining the kind of culture they want to be a part of, from the very beginning.  We define (or re-define) our collective core values in specific terms. We must seek to understand how we will support each other with those core values as our guiding principles.  This becomes the genesis of a culture in which outcomes are owned and shared and evolves into a working environment that supports all those who work within it.  It morphs into the path forward toward a sustainable, mentally and physically healthy and safe workplace.

And because we have visualized and approached our culture in this way, we have already begun to eliminate psychological and physical risk factors as opposed to dealing with them after they have been created and embedded in our work environment.

The Towers Watson global survey on people engagement concludes that a sustainably engaged, enabled and energized workforce has, on average, an operating margin that is three times greater than a company with a traditionally engaged workforce. You do not have to be in a for-profit business to understand the impact that this has on operational excellence in other sectors.

There is also overwhelming evidence that psychologically healthy and safe workplaces bring with them significantly lower rates of absenteeism, presenteeism, higher productivity and other related cost savings, that make the business case for a positive shift toward a motivated workplace culture a slam dunk.

So what is the start point for a psychologically safer and healthier workplace?

Leaders lead. They ask their people to richly imagine their future in a supportive environment where the mission is clear and everyone has each other’s backs. That is the start line for the journey to a sustainable, highly engaged, enabled and energized organization.

CultureFirst2Read more about Culture First, a keynote or workshop designed to help those whose mission it is to lead or play a role in creating a more positive and productive workplace environment.