Local governments are pressure cookers for staff: Town of Hinton finds mental health relief valve
Working for a municipality comes with a lot of pressure, both internal and external.
There are demands from the public, who scrutinize every penny. There are mandates from elected officials on council, to reduce budgets and be more productive and efficient.
Angela Ross, the health and safety co-ordinator at the Town of Hinton in Alberta, knows it all comes with the territory in public-sector life, but it also can take an enormous toll on the well-being of workers.
“And then we hit COVID,” she said, which exacerbated a lot of the issues.
“Our staff are very near and dear to my heart,” said Ross. “I want to make sure that they can come to work every day without all the stressors attached to life at the workplace.”
Before the pandemic, the town had started down the path of psychological safety, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s The Working Mind program and Mental Health Continuum Model. The model features a “healthy-reacting-injured-ill” scale to measure a person’s well-being.
The town surveyed its workers to see where they were on the continuum, said Ross, because there were indications — including harassment claims and work refusals — that there was room for improvement.
“We knew that we needed to do something,” she said. Ross spearheaded the drive to ensure real change happened, something that was a challenge as there were changes in leadership at the top.
Recipe for change
A new CAO, combined with an initiative from council to improve the workplace culture, was a great recipe to start to build and sustain change in creating a psychologically safe workplace. It culminated in the town winning a bronze award at the Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards in Toronto on Sept. 15.
Any organization struggling with its employees’ mental health needs a champion who is tenacious in ensuring it is addressed. At the town, that was Ross’ role.
“My goal has been not to stop,” she said.
She credits a lot of the town’s success to bringing in third parties to get an external perspective, she said.
“Other organizations are dealing with similar situations, and bringing in those professionals to get an outsider’s perspective really helps,” said Ross.
Now, the organization is better equipped to support leaders — both at the top and middle managers — with the tools and resources they need.
“We’re resource specialists, to be there by their side, when situations do come about to walk them through it,” she said.
Adding more fuel to the fire for all organizations to do something for workplace mental health are legal risks and responsibilities, she said, not to mention increasing costs from workers’ compensation claims.
Preventing problems from escalating
The goal is to improve the culture and help prevent situations from escalating into work refusals or harassment claims, said Ross.
“Conflict is not easy to deal with,” she said. “Most people tend to run in the other direction when it comes to conflict.”
Winning this award so early in the Town of Hinton’s journey is rewarding, she said.
“It means we’re doing all the right things and going in the right direction,” said Ross. “We may not be perfect, but we are putting things in place that will help support those that work at the Town of Hinton.”
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