Mental health: The next frontier for workers' rights

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Dave Coles. (Photo: CEP)

Today is International Workers' Day!

One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, workers in Chicago demonstrating for the eight hour day were attacked, a bomb was thrown and several strikers and police officers were killed. Falsely accused of throwing the bomb, a handful of activists were imprisoned and hanged. In response, international calls were made to mobilize on May 1st in support of workers' rights.

To this day, on May 1st we celebrate International Workers' Day to commemorate important social advances gained by workers and to look ahead to the struggles to come.

 As we celebrate May Day this year, we are not short on things to focus on when it comes to workers' rights. Conservative politicians and those implementing austerity programs all over the world would rather see the rights of working people go back in time so companies can further pad their profit margins. Our challenge is to defy this ever growing trend.

In Canada, health and safety regulations are in place to prevent accidents and occupational illnesses. That is in large part thanks to years of struggle by workers and their unions to create safer and healthier workplaces. The next frontier is the issue of mental health in the workplace.

Many Canadians struggle with some form of mental health issue, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, or more severe illnesses. Almost all of us know someone who experiences issues with mental health. Despite this fact, far too many workplaces do not offer any kind of resources to assist workers who might be struggling, and many do not even recognize it as a legitimate health concern.

Some workplaces have formally acknowledged the seriousness of mental health issues. But too often, employers are solely concerned with how mental health affects productivity. Preoccupation with the bottom-line unfortunately drives many employers to approach mental health with a lack of commitment.

As workers, we need to define and address mental health and make it a priority in our advocacy. As a first step, we should work to get formal recognition of the fact that mental health issues do indeed exist, that they impact many workers, their families, as well as co-workers.

Secondly, we should work with our unions to develop policies and workplace standards that are consistent with those set by the Canadian Standards Association. At this time, most Canadian workplaces are woefully sub-par.

The pressure applied by unions on employers and governments to make workplaces safe must include advocacy for adequate recognition of and support for mental health issues. We must pull back the curtain on this issue and fight for those in need of mental health support.

Our collective social well-being is not distinct and separate from the pervasiveness of mental health issues. In fact, many studies show that financial troubles, low wages, split shifts, precarious work and unemployment are among the most often stated reasons for anxiety. These issues are also closely linked to severe mental health problems including suicide.

The push to drive down wages and benefits by business and conservative politicians definitely impacts our own health and well-being and that of all workers. We also know that greater control over our work goes a long way to improving the health and safety of workers, particularly when it comes to mental health.

As we include mental health in our continued fight to defend workers' rights, I wish you all a Happy May Day.


Dave Coles is National President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP).

Photo: CEP

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