Canadian Medical Association

Sapna Mahajan is working to change minds about what workplace health and safety means.

“Workplaces have a role in trying to prevent people from being burnt out, leaving for anxiety or depression, and doing what they can to promote well-being.” – Sapna Mahajan, keynote at the Canadian Conference on Physician Health

As a director with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, she helped develop The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Released in 2013, it’s the first standard in the world to lay out guidelines for employers to create psychologically safe work environments.

“A shift started about ten years ago, where mental health was looked at as something you go and get somewhere else, to workplaces actually having a role – a leadership and accountability and responsibility – to not just look after the physical health and safety of their workers, but also their mental health,” she says.


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The standard was developed to provide a common framework for employers and is based on 13 psycho-social factors that impact an employee’s well-being. Yet when it came to health care, two additional factors were added, to address what Ms. Mahajan calls an “extremely unique setting”.

One is the protection for moral distress, a factor that reflects the psychological stress experienced by health care staff when faced with moral quandaries, such as perceiving oneself as not being able to provide optimal care because of resource issues.

The other is the need for self-care, and support for staff to adopt a self-care approach when dealing with occupational stress.

“Physicians in particular, being some of the most driven people in our country, who are saving lives and feel like they need to do everything for everyone, they are really high risk. There are a lot of barriers that prevent them from seeking help.”

For their part, health care institutions in Canada have been extremely receptive to the standard; according to Ms. Mahajan, health care workplaces are one of the top four sectors to download the standard.

In fact, as part of a 2014 case study project, the Mental Health Commission of Canada followed 40 organizations – for three years – as they took the standard and tried to implement it. Half those organizations were in the health care sector. And according to Ms. Mahajan, there was some evidence of success. Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto saw a decrease in absenteeism after the standard was adopted, and higher scores for patient satisfaction.

Yet even with this kind of data, Ms. Mahajan says when it comes to physicians and other health care professionals, the standard is just a first step.

“Physicians are an extremely unique group, who have more exposure to psychological stress. If we want to take care of them better, I think it starts as soon as they start their medical education, and the cultures we introduce.”



The Canadian Medical Association is organizing the Canadian Conference on Physician Health in St. John’s, Newfoundland from Oct. 3-5, 2019. The conference theme is “Changing Tides: Shifting cultures and creating safe spaces” and the event will showcase research and initiatives for improving physician health and wellness.


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