May 18th, 2012

MHANYS: Why Healthy Workplace Legislation is a Mental Health Advocacy Issue


By John Richter, Public Policy Director [Participant in the April 30, 2012 Press Conference]
Mental Health Association in New York State, MHANYS

Advocates of “Healthy Workplace” legislation (in New York State in 2011-12: A4258/S4289) have been promoting a bill that would amend the labor law, in relation to establishing a private cause of action for an abusive work environment.

MHANYS recently joined the growing list of supporters of A4258/S4289 on behalf of all New Yorkers who have a right to a healthy and safe work environment free from severe or pervasive verbal or physical abuse of any kind.  Similar versions of the bill have been introduced in 20 other states.  MHANYS is the first mental health advocacy organization to sign onto the list and we have had the opportunity to shed fresh perspective on a bill whose legislative history began in 2006.

MHANYS support for the bill is rooted in the belief that healthy workplaces are integral to a healthy life, and this of course includes our physical as well as mental health.  Work environments with patterns of abusive behavior toward or among employees are not mentally hygienic places to spend 20 or 40 hours a week.

Many protections are in place already in our laws to help assure that places of employment are safe and healthy for all employees. But assuring the mental health of employees is not as clear cut and tangible as providing an environment free of physical hazards. 

Once again as mental health advocates we carry the burden of making the less visible more visible so as to bring attention and solutions to bear on the problem.  There remains a significant portion of the employee population for whom hostile work environment provisions of law offer no protections against non-physical forms of abuse for non-members of the protected classes. 

Further, though people who have physical or mental disabilities are a protected class, they are so only to the extent that the harassment is based on the characteristics of that protected class.  If not, the pattern of behavior may be abusive just the same even though it may not be directed or based on the person’s disability.  And, should one choose not to identify with the disabilities protected class, there are still no remedies or recourse while having to endure harassment in a hostile work environment.

Hostile Work Environments

Unlawful harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal authority.  Unwelcome verbal or physical conduct based on a protected class’s legally protected characteristics is unlawful harassment when:

1. The conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment; or

2. A supervisor’s harassing conduct results in a tangible change in an employee’s employment status or benefits (for example, demotion, termination, failure to promote, etc.).

Hostile work environment claims of harassment generally require several elements, including:

1. The complaining party must be a member of a statutorily protected class;

2. S/he was subjected to unwelcome verbal or physical conduct related to his or her membership in that protected class;

3. The unwelcome conduct complained of was based on his or her membership in that protected class;

4. The unwelcome conduct affected a term or condition of employment and/or had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with his or her work performance and/or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

Protected Classes: race, color, religion, sex (whether or not of a sexual nature and including same-gender harassment and gender identity harassment), national origin, age (40 and over), disability (mental or physical), sexual orientation, or retaliation.

MHANYS also supports A4258/S4289 because of the psychological harm that can occur to anyone employed in “mentally unsafe” workplaces.  By any reasonable standard, work environments where abuse can occur, especially without a means to resolve the abuse, are not mentally hygienic spaces.  Psychological and emotional abuse impacts not only existing mental health conditions, but can also contribute to the development of new symptoms and illnesses, which absent the abusive situation, may never had occurred.

Others manage to maintain employment and even thrive in spite of the challenges their illnesses present.  Abusive behavior in the workplace puts these particular individuals at risk for further psychological suffering and damage, lost wages and ultimately lost productivity and employment.

Frivolous Claims

The relationships we have with people at work and the environmental conditions under which we must work have serious implications for both our physical and mental well-being.  By helping to limit the occurrence of abuse in the workplace and providing a viable recourse for victims of abuse, this bill, we believe, takes a stride toward helping to protect everyone’s health and mental health while at work.

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MHANYS produced a Memorandum in Support to the New York Healthy Workplace Advocates to use in their push for enactment of the Healthy Workplace law in New York.

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As Director of the national Healthy Workplace Campaign, I thank MHANYS for their support of our affiliates, the NYHWA led by Tom Witt and Mike Schlicht.

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We encourage local, state and national associations of Employee Assistance professionals to follow in the footsteps of MHANYS. Contact us at 360-656-6630.

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 18th, 2012 at 8:42 pm and is filed under Bullying & Health, Guest Articles, Healthy Workplace Bill (U.S. campaign). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. Tad Cook says:

    I don’t understand why “The complaining party must be a member of a statutorily protected class.”

    This is never mentioned in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and elsewhere in the Act, “protected class” does not refer to any particular group of people, but instead the classifications that the law addresses, such as race, religion, gender, etc.

    In other words, it doesn’t protect any particular group of people.

    Everyone has a race, gender, etc. and the law protects discrimination based on those factors, not a particular gender or religion. So if the protected class is religion, the law doesn’t protect Baptists but not Catholics, for example. It applies to everyone equally. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the equal protection under the law which the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees.

    I think the confusion stems from many people thinking of “protected class” being similar to “middle class” or “working class”, but it is not the same at all.  In the law, protected class refers to a classification, not a class of people, and the types of discrimination that the law addresses.

    It seems to me that statements about “membership” in a class only confuse the issue.
     

    • Gary Namie says:

       The problem stems from when the targeted person claims discrimination only to find that the abuser is similarly protected based on some status or grounds. With matching protections, the civil rights laws are effectively nullified. OK, let’s say the target complains that the torment she suffers is based on her Catholicism. This would help her convince the employer to take her complaint seriously. Employers dare not ignore discrimination complaints. They risk a charge of reckless indifference, negligence. Trouble arises if the bully is also Catholic. The match in status undermines the argument that the basis for the discrimination was intolerance of her religion. Same with race, same with gender. Because 62% of all bullying is same gender, it can safely be ignored by employers today in the U.S.

      Your reading of Title VII is slightly off. If (and only if) the basis of discrimination can be shown to be race, religion, gender, etc. can the complainant claim protection. Pure hatred or cruelty is not part of civil rights laws. No protections extended beyond the special classes.

  2. Al Thomson says:

    A NYS DHR rep told me my former boss is now under medication for “Bipolar” disorder. This sounds too convenient and illegal for someone in charge of my case to report about a boss’ mental diagnosis. Even if the dx is correct, isn’t it wrong to tell a victim such personal information? Ironically, my boss was transferred to Regional Safety Officer. This makes many of us scoff at “Workplace Violence Prevention” training. No one acted on my report. (Thanks for access to this blog)

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