Post-Traumatic Stress Injury: Hearing, Helping, Healing

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Jim Regimbal chaired the Yukon Employees’ Union’s recent Human Rights panel discussions of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.  As Dawson City’s Fire Chief, President of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs, and Yukon’s Director on the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, he has advocated for improved services to first responders suffering from PTSI and has been instrumental in bringing the issue into focus in Yukon.  He provided powerful empathy and insight earned from his many years on the job. 

The first step is acknowledging and accepting that, whatever name it’s given, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury is real and that trauma significant enough to cause injury can’t easily be quantified. The science supports this, with mountains of evidence explaining the changes to brain structure caused by exposure to trauma. We can’t choose not to “believe in PTSI” any more than we can choose not to believe in climate change. The evidence is clear and the science is irrefutable.

PTSI can be the result of a sudden, dramatic incident but it is just as likely to develop invisibly over many years.  Its onset can come without warning, sometimes after a seemingly benign event.  Whitehorse Psychologist Nicole Bringsli used a water glass analogy; a glass can hold only so much liquid.  All it takes is one too many ordinary, inconsequential drops of water and the glass spills over.  We can witness and contain only so much pain and trauma before we reach our capacity to cope and, like the water glass, we risk spilling over.

What constitutes trauma?  There’s no easy answer. Trauma that affects one individual very profoundly can sometimes be borne by another, or can be overcome with access to the right kind of support at the right time.  Bringsli reminded us that each individual brings their own history and sensibilities to their work, and each person responds differently to similar circumstances.

What occupations or events are likely to lead to psychological injury?  Combat veterans, first responders like firefighters, police officers, EMS providers, dispatchers and corrections officers witness things they can’t ever forget, scenes and calls that will affect them forever.  A career of running into burning buildings, delivering terrible news or fighting to save lives takes an enormous toll on the heart and psyche.  There are many lines of work that put people at risk, and it’s important to recognize the danger so we can provide appropriate resources to all those who need them.

Many caring professions are occupied predominantly by women, and many struggle silently with the emotional impacts of that difficult work. Though rarely labelled PTSI, the ongoing emotional trauma has the same impact on quality of life and mental health. It’s time to consider how broadly affected both men and women are by their work, and how many professions are high risk for psychological injury.

Social workers face heartbreaking situations in the line of duty. Removing children from dangerous homes, denying parental access and leaving vulnerable children in foster situations takes a terrible toll. Sheena Larose, a former Child Protective Services worker from Ontario recently wrote “Unless you are in the trenches, people don’t understand that child protection work can be among the most intensive, heart-wrenching and volatile work one could ever encounter.”

Social workers counsel child abuse victims and must bear witness for their frightened and confused young clients. When we talk about social workers’ emotional health, we often say they have “burned out”… we don’t consider PTSI as a likely outcome.  Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue – whatever we call it, the results can be life altering and career limiting.

Front line workers in shelters for domestic violence victims face recurring trauma – imagine the daily challenge of maintaining a healthy outlook when you’re immersed in the pain of others.  How hard must it be to turn a woman away when your facility has no space, knowing she and her children have no choice but to return to a dangerous home?  These workers must also remain anonymous to protect the security of those they help, and so they often have no choice but to struggle in silence, without recognition or support.

Prevention is more valuable than cure; our panel members spoke again and again of the urgent need for effective critical incident de-briefing practices, currently almost non-existent in Yukon. They talked of the need for trained peer support, for non-judgemental listening and for access to counselling services. Other jurisdictions have comprehensive supports we haven’t even begun to consider here in the Territory. 

When our panel was asked for a wish list to help combat Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, there was consensus on the need for critical incident debriefing, for pro-active discussion and peer support. More funding is needed to ensure local mental health service providers are resourced to provide care when it’s needed. Employers must prioritize worker safety and be as diligent in protecting the minds and spirit of their employees as they are about their physical well-being.    

Jeannie Dendys, Yukon’s new Minister responsible for the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health & Safety Board offered her commitment to supporting PTSI prevention & treatment.  YWCHSB Chair Kurt Dieckmann stressed the role of the employer and the value of prevention.  It’s important to make sure protections are built into work environments likely to experience critical stress and trauma.  Normalizing help-seeking behaviour will go far, he says, to de-stigmatizing PTSI and making work safer.

How we respond to our injured colleagues, neighbours and family members, is an indicator of how likely they are to heal.  Forcing sufferers to convince us of their injury, prove its cause and defend their need for help adds insult to injury and creates barriers sometimes too great to overcome.  During the recent Territorial election campaign, new Premier Sandy Silver promised to amend the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Act to include presumptive provisions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD/PTSI) in first responders. That commitment was echoed by Minister Dendys at our event.  At YEU we believe presumptive provisions must cover first responders, but that other high risk worker groups must also be included if the system is to protect those at greatest risk of harm.

Our community is compassionate; we are quick to help families in need. We support our sick, injured neighbours when there’s a fire, a death or catastrophic illness. That empathy must extend to the helpers, not just to the victims. 

We invite you to watch the full video recording of our two panel discussions.

Watch The Nature of Things for PTSD: Beyond Trauma

 

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The YG Fact-Finding Meeting; What to Expect

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It’s another day at work, everything seems to be going well and it’s shaping up to be a good day.  Then it happens; you receive a request to attend a meeting the following day and your supervisor advises that you are entitled to bring a union representative to the meeting!

What has happened? Why won’t they tell me what the meeting is about? What are the specifics? Aside from being frustrated that you can’t have these questions answered, being called to a meeting relatively blind is also incredibly stressful.

You have been called to a fact finding meeting.

Fact finding meetings are a very common and normal occurrence in Yukon Government workplaces.  When a supervisor or manager receives a complaint or incident report involving a staff member, they are required to investigate – this means they need to talk to you and get your version of the incident or event. If you have been asked to such a meeting, you must attend.

The fact finding meeting is based on the premise that there has been a problematic event or incident of some kind. The employer needs to ask questions to determine what happened. You might not be directly involved; you may have witnessed the incident or have information that may help to make the situation clear.

These sessions are not meant to be punitive, but should offer space for an open and honest dialogue on the event being discussed. These conversations can feel incredibly stressful for the employee and may feel like a cross examination, but that is not the intent. Your union representative will be there with you to protect your rights.

Why do I need a union representative?  It is incumbent on the employer to advise an employee of the need for representation if there’s any chance of discipline down the road.  Discipline is not always involved, but the employer cannot deny a member representation then dole out discipline after the fact; this goes against the principles of the Collective Agreement as well as the principles of natural justice.

Why won’t they answer my questions about the event or incident before the meeting?  Well, this is twofold; while they may state “we are going to be discussing event ABC” they cannot discuss the actual event outside the meeting. Firstly the employer would like to see unchecked, honest reactions to the questions posed.  Secondly if the employer engages in this conversation it may be construed as part of the fact finding session when the employee has not yet had an opportunity to secure union representation.

These meetings are usually less than an hour long, depending on the events and issues at hand.  During these sessions the employee, the employer or the union representative can ask for a break to have discussions or sidebar chats.  These meeting should be, and for the most part are, very respectful and smooth.

What can I say? What can’t I say during these sessions?  The intent of these fact findings is to bring the facts to light.  The employee is responsible to be open, honest and accountable. Your union representative is there to protect your rights and ensure proper process is followed, but they are not defense attorneys and will not be using legal gamesmanship to avoid the issues at hand.

This is a meeting about FACTS, not about what you may think of a situation. Avoid deflecting accountability by drawing others’ poor behavior into the conversation.  The employer may ask what others thought or said, but you should avoid commenting on how you believe others may think or feel about the incident or parties involved.

Do I get to have my say in the meeting? Of course – this is not a one sided barrage or cross examination.  During the meeting you will be asked several times if there is anything else you would like to add. This is the time where pertinent items to the event can be offered if they have not been addressed in the questioning.  This however is not the time to deflect accountability, point out others’ poor behavior or inject supposition or rumor into the meeting.  Your additions should be factual, pertinent and meaningful.

It is also likely that the employer will have investigated the issue by chatting with other employees named in the event.  These sessions are confidential and private, and employees are advised not to speak about these meetings outside of the HR/union/supervisory pathways.

How do I get Union representation?  Call 867-667-2331 as soon as you’ve been notified of the meeting, and ask for the intake officer.  They will ask you for the meeting time & location and ask whether have any idea what the meeting may involve.

Once this information is collected, YEU will make a call to the Shop Steward group to see who is available to attend your meeting.  Once the Shop Steward has confirmed their availability, the Steward will contact you to discuss the process and answer your questions prior to the meeting. Some Stewards will contact you well ahead of time while others, depending on time of notification, may make arrangements to speak with you just prior to the meeting.

What can I expect once the meeting is over? Timelines are usually established at the end of the meeting.  Your supervisor or the HR Representative will notify you of the timeline and might advise you that another meeting will be requested if more questions arise during their follow up.  Generally, the post-meeting fact finding time is one to two weeks.

What will happen to me? This depends on the incident and your role in what transpired.  One possible pathway is the performance management stream, another is discipline.  I will cover these topics in an upcoming performance management and discipline article on the blog; keep an eye out and have a read.

Remember, fact finding meetings are a normal part of any workplace and your YEU representatives are there to support you through these meetings.Rob-Jones-Y010-President-2016

In Solidarity,

Rob Jones

President – Local Y010

 

Non-Profits & Yukon Employees’ Union: A Note from the President’s Desk

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 In the last few years YEU has seen a marked increase in the number of workers employed by non-profit groups who wish to organize their workplaces.
YEU does not have an organizing budget or organizing staff and we don’t go out into workplaces looking to organize them. Workers come to us looking for information, for support and assistance. Sometimes those organic internal organizing drives are successful and we sign a new bargaining unit and sometimes the workers aren’t interested or ready to unionize. Either way we’ve learned a lot from our new non-profit groups.

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Teegatha’Oh Zheh Bargaining Team

It may seem a bit counter-intuitive to unionize a non-profit. After all, those who work in such organizations often choose to do so because the organization’s goals align closely with their own belief systems.  Few pursue a career in a field populated by non-profits and NGO’s because they expect to make a lot of money; that decision is usually driven by a deeply held conviction or interest. The truth is these organizations often have precarious budgets and suffer from lack of long term financial certainty.

So how on earth does bringing a union into the mix help a precariously funded not for profit organization? Well, there are lots of reasons to unionize and money isn’t always top of the list. In fact it’s almost never the main reason groups decide to organize.

Many of our new smaller units are governed by volunteer boards. A Board of Directors provides oversight and direction to an Executive Director (in some cases), who manages staff. The problems we see often stem from the challenges created when well-meaning directors attempt to make human resource, policy and management decisions without a background in human resources, policy development or NFP management. Decisions made for financial or ideological reasons can impact staff in ways that are unexpected and negative.

Inviting a union in helps to establish a structure that benefits all parties who contribute skill and energy to the function of the NFP. A well-crafted contract ensures the needs of workers and management are met, and roles and expectations are clear. It also creates a fair and predictable workplace – an enormous advantage in what is often an otherwise unpredictable environment. And a secure workplace means less turn over of staff, which is more economical.
Last weekend I attended a Talking Union Basics course. It was exciting to see so many people taking this union fundamentals course and especially rewarding to see members from our newer locals attending union training.

The one thing that stands out for me about our Union is that we are a truly democratic organization. That commitment to democracy is evident from the moment employees decide they want to organize and join YEU; a majority of workers must sign cards to be granted union certification with the federally regulated Canadian Industrial Relations Board. From that moment on,  decisions like what goes into their collective agreement, whether to accept or reject that collective agreement are in the workers’ hands.

 

I want to recognize the workers of Help & Hope for Families, Teegatha ’Oh Zeh and Skookum Jim Emergency After Hours Outreach Services for devoting endless hours to an organizing process that can feel extremely frustrating at times. To you and to those groups quietly working toward union certification, I say congratulations & welcome to YEU.

Steve Geick, President

Yukon Employees’ Union

YEU Needs Shop Stewards!

YEU needs Shop Stewards…workers like you who are willing to take some training and be available to help colleagues who need an ear, someone to accompany them to a meeting or to help find a solution to a problem at work.

Who can be a Steward?  Any member in good standing of Yukon Employees’ Union can be a Shop Steward in their Local.

What about training? YEU has created a new staff position dedicated to strengthening our Shop Steward team. New training initiatives will be announced over the next year; it’s a very good time to step forward as a Steward!

YEU currently offers monthly Shop Steward Round Table sessions held the 3rd Wednesday morning of each month. These informal presentations offer opportunities to ask questions and learn from others. The PSAC office in Whitehorse also offers regular training on things like union structure, roles, Local Officers training and more. There is online training available through PSAC’s Education program and workshops are offered by affiliate organizations throughout the year.

Rob-Jones-Y010-President-2016Yukon Government has an employer/union co-facilitated course on the Grievance Process – required training for all YG Stewards which can be accessed by all YG members through the Quarterly. No union leave is required for this training. For other training approved during your regular work hours, YEU reimburses your employer for your time; you will not lose pay to attend.

What will I be expected to do? Your co-workers will likely ask you questions about the contract, the union or their own work situations. Stewards are called by our Intake Officer at YEU to accompany members to fact finding meetings with their manager or supervisor. Your role at these meetings is usually as an observer, note taker and provider of moral support. In some cases and with appropriate training, you may be asked to participate more fully in discussions at meetings, but not until you have received coaching and feel prepared to do so.

Is it all volunteer work?  Most contracts have a clause that permits Shop Stewards to do union work while on the job. You submit a leave form citing the appropriate article from your collective agreement for the time you spend researching or representing a member. Your pay will not be disrupted. Representation work done outside your normal work hours is done on a voluntary basis and is not compensated.

My workplace already has a Steward. Stewards represent workers from their Local, not just from their specific workplace so don’t let that stop you. The more well-trained Stewards we have the better.Teresa-Acheson-Miscal-Avano-Nesgaard

If I make a mistake, will someone lose their job? No. You will have a network of support including our well trained & experienced Union Advisors. As a Shop Steward you will have regular conversations with our staff in order to ensure everyone is working in unison for members.

How do I become a Shop Steward? Each Local’s bylaws are worded differently. Some dictate that Stewards are elected at the Local’s AGM, others allow for nominations and elections at any time.

Your Chief Shop Steward or your Local President will guide you through the process. Once we’re advised by your Local that you’re a Shop Steward, you’ll be invited to our office to be sworn in by our President or Vice-President. You’ll get an orientation to our office, staff and procedures and receive your New Steward’s package. Once you’ve met everyone, you’ll be registered for upcoming training.

Will becoming a Steward make me a target for my employer? Shop Stewards who are well trained and level-headed help create workplaces that function smoothly. Employers recognize the benefit of a union liaison in the workplace and are usually very happy to work with them. It’s in everyone’s best interest to solve problems quickly and cleanly. It is very rare that our Stewards find themselves in conflict with their employer simply by virtue of stepping forward as a representative.

Will co-workers expect me to be an instant expert on our contract, labour law and all things union?
Your role is to ensure members have fair representation and that all pertinent information is recorded, provided to the Union Advisor and kept confidential. You’ll need to get to know your contract but we do not expect you to interpret the agreement or be up to date on all labour issues.Talk to a steward

A Steward needs to be compassionate and organized. The Steward’s role is one of problem solver and witness.

At some point in their careers about 50% of workers call their union. It might be a simple question about vacation leave, a scheduling issue or ongoing and persistent harassment from a co-worker or supervisor. To meet our members’ needs when they need support we need your help. Please call your Chief Shop Steward, Local President or the YEU Office today. Visit yeu.ca for contact info.

Remember; join us the 3rd Wednesday of each month for Shop Steward Round Table training sessions; informal workshops geared to skill building. We also invite you to an informal Sandwich Session at lunch the 1st Tuesday of each month. This is a training fee casual get together just to build our network and get to know each other. Call David Anderson at YEU, 667-2331 or email danderson@yeu.ca

Leave Request DENIED!

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It’s been a long year – you’ve been crazy busy at work and you can’t wait to take your vacation.  You’ve made plans; maybe even booked a plane ticket and started looking for a house-sitter. It’s time to start counting down the days ‘til you hit the road.

Then you hear the dreaded words … your request for leave has been denied. You’ve got the leave in your bank and there’s no question – you need the break, but your supervisor cites “operational requirements”. Suddenly your plans are washed away like a sandcastle at high tide.

The words Operational Requirements can be a magical get out of jail free card for an employer. This phrase is often used to cover a number of situations including costs of overtime, challenges planning workload etc., but it’s your employer’s responsibility to anticipate and plan for operational needs. They’re required to organize their business so employees can exercise their Collective Agreement rights, including leave entitlements. When considering leave requests, supervisors must consider the employees’ interests and balance them against the Employer’s need to continue doing business without an appreciable loss of production or efficiency.

So what can you do when you’ve been denied, you’re exhausted and desperate to get out of dodge? Can you file a grievance? Should you try and negotiate or should you throw yourself on the floor kicking and bawling ‘til they beg you to take leave?

1. First of all, don’t book the seat sale tickets unless your leave is approved. Telling your supervisor “I’ve already booked tickets”  will not help you.

2. If you work in specialized field, a field that tends to be under-resourced or a workplace that has predictable busy times, plan ahead.  Get your leave request in early; there’s not much your manager or union can do for you when your request comes in last and everyone wants to be gone for the month of July.

3. Watch the calendar; if you’ve submitted your leave request and you don’t hear back within the number of days prescribed in your collective agreement, your leave may have been approved by default. (Most CA’s require your employer to approve deny your leave in writing within a couple of weeks of submission). Follow up with an e-mail confirming that your leave has been approved.

4. Call YEU and speak with the advisory staff. While refusals to grant leave are most often not grievable because of the circumstances or because there is no remedy to be granted, don’t assume that “operational requirements” ends the conversation. The employer has obligations under the Collective Agreement, and we are here to ensure those obligations are met fairly.

Straight Talk: Addiction & Accommodation at work.

addictDid you know that alcoholism and addiction are considered disabilities?

A seven year legal battle for two Ontario residents and a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada set a legal precedent on what constitutes a disability under Human Rights legislation. Employees who suffer from an illness or injury that restricts or limits their ability to perform their duties are considered to be “disabled” under employment law; addictions and alcoholism are considered disabilities.

Under the Yukon Human Rights Act, an employer must accommodate disabled employees – this is the “duty to accommodate”.  The right to equality for persons with disabilities is entrenched in Human Rights legislation across Canada.   If an employee suffers from an addiction they may have access to a workplace accommodation while they are recovering.

We say may because the duty to accommodate usually follows disclosure by the employee. The employee may believe they suffer from an addiction but unless this is disclosed, it’s tough for the employer to know what supports are appropriate.

An accommodation can be anything from  altered  hours of work, time off to attend counseling or treatment or even modified duties.  It may mean working in a different position or location. The intent is to reduce or eliminate the risk of further injury or illness, to meet operational needs and to allow the individual to continue working while recovery takes place.

If an employer suspects a medical condition may be affecting an employee’s performance, they have a duty to inquire. This means they may ask the employee if there are any medical restrictions or limitations, or if they have a medical condition they should be aware of.  This isn’t an invasion of your privacy just for the sake of asking; if you are asked, it likely means your employers have noticed you are struggling.

What can you do if you believe addiction is affecting your ability to carry out your duties?  Ask for help! Talk to your family or friends, consult with your family physician and tap into your employee assistance program.

If you believe you need a workplace accommodation, ask YEU for a union representative to help you talk to your supervisor.  Some employers offer financial support to attend treatment programs, follow up counseling or other rehabilitative programs.  All employers have a legal duty to accommodate an employee to the point of undue hardship.

If you’re in doubt about your responsibilities and your rights as a disabled employee or if you have any questions please contact YEU and your human resource branch. There is confidential support available and all levels can work together to help.  For your protection, it makes sense to make sure you have union support when you approach your employer; we will be with you every step of the way.

Sick Leave: Ours to Protect!

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