The Mental Health Commission Of Canada recently released a voluntary standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. It is a credible and sensible effort that provides employers with a due diligence defence for allegations of violations of health and safety legislation in jurisdictions where legislation requires employers provide psychological safety on the workplace.
One would hope that there will soon be wide dissemination and adoption of the standard, as I cannot think of any rational argument against it. Healthy workers in health-promoting workplace environments lead to healthy economies, communities, and families. There are no losers, and we all deserve better than is being delivered in the Canadian job market.
There has been a recent rash of departmental codes of ethics with clauses that muzzle public servants, making it an offence to enage in almost any kind of external communication without permission from above. Scientists, CIDA employees and now librarians (another dangerous breed) are being systematically placed inside the government's 'cone of silence'.
The great irony is that these codes of conduct are being produced in response to a whistleblower law that was supposed to improve transparency, not eliminate it.
These codes are called for in the government's much-hyped but deeply flawed whistleblower law, introduced in 2006 as part of the Federal Accountability Act. The codes were supposed to clarify ethical standards, and hence the types of misconduct that government whistleblowers can report and still be protected against reprisals.
But instead the system is being turned on its head. Departments are writing the codes in a way that make it easer to punish whistleblowers – by charging them with 'disloyalty' for any kind of communication that they dislike or was not pre-approved.
Still, these draconian and inappropriate codes of conduct do serve one useful purpose: the mandarins that write them are letting us all know in no uncertain terms that they have something to hide.
One of the reasons for the 'epidemic of mental health claims' mentioned in this article is the epidemic of bullying and harassment that has swept the federal public service.
It is no coincidence that outgoing Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has been talking about the 'climate of fear' that exists today -- worse than he has seen in his long career.
The last Public Service Employee Survey showed 29% of all employees reporting harassment – record high levels. I consider harassment a good indicator of management incompetence: and bullying is a control technique used by inept managers who value obedience over competence in their subordinates. We should not tolerate it.
What does this bulling look like? Read about the outrageous treatment of Zabia Chamberlain to get a sense of one person's experience, then multiply this case to include thousands of others. Many of these people are incapacitated by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and are not coming back to work anytime soon – to the government, nor sadly, to any other full-time job. Many will need life-long therapy to cope with night-terrors, flashbacks, panic attacks and chronic depression.
Whistleblowers seem to receive the most brutal treatment, but any employee can become a target, especially if they fall out of favour with an abusive boss.
What are the central agencies doing about this? Absolute nothing it seems: even the annual report on implementation of Treasury Board's anti-harassment policy was quietly discontinued in 2008, while the reported levels of harassment have continued to rise.
Trying to force people back to work – or off disability – after they have been irreperably injured is a misguided strategy that will surely fail.
The government needs to start focusing on prevention, for example: providing basic training for anyone who is given the serious responsibility of managing others; measuring management performance in part by employee morale; and getting serial harassers and the like out of management completely -- and preferrably out of the public service.
This is the path towards a healthy public service, one that is safe for employees to do great work.
For me, the Boeing Dreamliner incidents raise the question of how we ensure the safety of technologies used in aviation – what is the decision-making process, and can we trust it?
Early airships used Hydrogen to provide lift, mainly because it will carry twice the payload of Helium, the only alternative gas. This was a huge advantage, yet Hydrogen was abandoned in the 1930s after dozens of hydrogen-inflated airships were destroyed by fires. Experience dramatically demonstrated that no matter how effective the ignition-prevention techniques, one tiny lapse was sufficient to cause disaster, and the industry abandoned this technology.
There are some parallels with Lithium Ion batteries, which offer far superior performance over the alternatives, but can also present a serious fire hazard: they have a very high power density, and once ignited burn fiercely. Lithium Ion batteries carried as cargo have been implicated in numerous aviation incidents and were cited by the NTSB as a likely contributor to the fatal crash of a UPS Boeing 747 in Dubai.
Can Lithium Ion batteries be made safe for use in aviation? The future of Boeing's new Dreamliner may depend upon it, since the 787 derives some of its fuel-efficiency advantage from weight reductions achieved by replacing heavy hydraulic systems with lightweight batteries and electric motors. How long would it take to redesign the Dreamliner to use a different battery technology? Has anyone even considered that this might prove necessary? Is there a Plan B?
I don't know the answers to these questions and my concern is not the technology, but the decision-making process. If perchance engineers should find it impossible to completely prevent potentially fatal Lithium Ion battery fires and meltdowns, would the authorities have the intestinal fortitude to recognize this, and to make the tough decisions that would necessarily follow? Boeing's high hopes for the Dreamliner would be seriously damaged, and the FAA would have to do an about-face, conceding that it erred in approving the use of a yet-unproven technology.
Yet it's difficult to have much confidence in the decision-making process when the FAA has a track record of ignoring safety problems and taking reprisals against employees who try to report them. In May 2012 the FAA was harshly criticized by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency charged with protecting government whistleblowers, for a pattern of unresponsiveness to urgent safety problems, dating back to at least 2007. "The FAA has one of the highest rates of whistle-blower disclosures per employee of any executive-branch agency" said OSC head Carolyn Lerner.
Let's pray that the battery engineers find good technical solutions – because if they do not, I fear that, as with the early airships, there could be high a cost in aircraft downed and lives lost before the authorities and the industry bow to the inevitable. And let's also pray that there will continue to be courageous employees in aviation, willing to put their careers on the line to protect us – by coming forward when they see attempts to sweep safety problems under the rug.
I had never heard of Aaron Swartz until his death, but his story moved me deeply – partly because of the tragedy of a brilliant, idealistic young life needlessly cut short; and partly because I've seen so many good people ruthlessly crushed within an inch of their lives, right here in Canada, using similar tactics.
Unfortunately the public does not know about these whistleblowers, because the whole purpose is to silence them – and this usually works. Aaron is dead, but these people are just as invisible and voiceless.
For doing the right thing and speaking up about wrongdoing, these truth-tellers typically endure isolation, ridicule, harassment and bullying, calculated to make their life a living hell at work and to injure them psychologically. But this is just the start. False accusations follow, bogus complaints, and punitive investigations, designed to discredit and criminalize them, and render them unemployed and unemployable.
If they seek redress in the courts or before a tribunal, then lawyers are employed to 'fight dirty', dragging out simple cases for years and using their superior resources to turn the legal system into a weapon against the lone, often unrepresented, whistleblower.
In the end they are usually crushed, financially, emotionally and spiritually, and will do anything to end the ordeal, including accepting token settlements – which always come with a gag order silencing them forever. They live the rest of their lives in the knowledge that by trying to do the right thing they have not only lost their careers and their livelihood (and often their families) but they failed to stop the wrongdoing. And they now see their country as a dangerous, lawless place, where ruthless thugs run free, so different from the Canada they believed in before. No wonder that some end their lives.
It doesn't have to be this way. Other countries – including the USA, UK and Australia – have effective whistleblower protection laws which were passed more than a decade ago.
It's time for Canadians to demand real protection for honest employees who speak out about wrongdoing that harms the public interest. Until this happens we are all at risk. The next Aaron to be cut down by an overbearing agency or an unscrupulous corporation could be your child or mine.