Massachusetts Bill Would Hold Employers Accountable for Mental Harm
On October 10, 2023, hundreds either submitted or showed up in person to at the Massachusetts State House in support of the Workplace Psychological Safety Act, potentially groundbreaking legislation that could make the state the first in the nation to hold employers accountable for psychological abuse at work.
Workplace bullying, harassment, and mobbing affect up to 50 million American workers, causing mental health issues like anxiety and depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. These staggering numbers persist due to loopholes in current laws and the lack of oversight for non-physical workplace abuse.
A recent survey of over 500 Massachusetts state employees underscores the pervasiveness of this issue. Conducted by workplace anti-abuse advocates between March and June 2021, the survey found that 68% of respondents had been bullied during their careers. The abuse disproportionately impacted women, older workers, and people of color. Nearly all targets said it negatively affected their health, especially causing anxiety, depression, and loss of confidence. Yet when they sought help from management, HR, or unions, no solution was found in the vast majority of cases. Many lost income, incurred medical bills or left their jobs due to unresolved abuse. The survey data provides further evidence that stronger legal protections are needed to prevent such widespread harm.
The Workplace Psychological Safety Act aims to close those loopholes. Like sexual harassment law, the bill would establish a toxic work environment as the baseline for legal action without requiring proof that the bullying was motivated by bias against a protected class. This challenges the current discrimination standard, which places the immense burden of proving intent upon victims.
“Workplace psychological abuse is a silent destroyer because it’s currently lawful in this country,” said Kimberly Williams, an HR professional who testified in support of the Act. “You may be able to take action when it’s tied to protected characteristics, but that’s difficult to prove. And since no one talks about it, many suffer in silence.”
The Act would enable targeted employees to request internal investigations, bypass flawed processes via state agencies, and sue violating employers or individuals – and disclose case details despite non-disclosure agreements. It mandates that employers adopt anti-abuse policies, conduct climate surveys, promptly investigate claims, and take responsibility when investigations favor the complainant.
“This legislation is vital,” explained Vicki Courtemanche, co-founder of the national advocacy group End Workplace Abuse. “Employers often sidestep accountability, believing liability protections outweigh human well-being. Laws incentivizing proactivity could prevent so much harm.”
Importantly, the Act also tackles systemic issues enabling workplace abuse. It demands quarterly reporting of diversity metrics and internal complaints to government agencies for public access. This data transparency and accountability aim to disrupt oppressive systems and marginalize stereotypes.
The bill has already passed the Rhode Island Senate and awaits introduction in New York City. But time is running out in Massachusetts – the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development must decide by February whether to advance the policy.
With less than three months remaining, anti-abuse advocates are urging Massachusetts residents and legislators alike to support this trailblazing move towards psychologically safe and ethical workplaces.
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