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Hill Life & People

Political staffers have it tough. I know. I employ them

By Liberal MP Majid Jowhari      

With little job security and lacking independent dispute-resolution mechanisms, MPs’ and ministers’ staff are vulnerable.

Political staffers face a unique set of stressors on the job, including knowing that if a workplace conflict reaches a media outlet, they could be responsible for bad political exposure to their party, says MP Majid Jowhari. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—It wouldn’t be right to conclude this series of op-eds on mental health on Parliament Hill—particularly an entry focusing on staff—without amplifying the voice of another insightful spokesperson on mental health, Paul Wernick, a former parliamentary staffer who has brought the workplace culture of Parliament Hill and its unique stresses and mental health challenges to the fore.

I would encourage anyone who has read this series to seek out his statements to get a more rounded perspective on this issue. To get a real sense of the landscape, it is vital to understand the mindset of the staff on Parliament Hill through their own words, not just through a Member of Parliament’s viewpoint.

Last week, I wrote about the vulnerabilities that I felt as a new MP, but this week I’d like to share my perspective on the conditions that can leave staff feeling vulnerable personally and professionally in Parliament’s unique work environment, and how we can work to change it.

When an MP is elected, they are required to play overlapping roles whose mandates can be at odds. There is a reason the private sector keeps a partition between management and human resources; without that, no independent dispute-resolution processes can exist.

Even in the most well-meaning of offices, staff are often instinctively wary of this dynamic and its relationship to their employment. Parliamentary staff can find themselves let go for any—or no—reason, with little in the way of recourse, and they are keenly aware of how replaceable they are. In fact, their only final recourse is with their MP, who could be, themselves, responsible for the very situation the staffer needs to raise.

Moreover, by and large, staffers truly believe in the work that their “side” is doing, and they are politically aware that if what they view as an interpersonal or workplace conflict reaches a media outlet that they could be responsible for the wrong kind of political exposure.

Would these sorts of incidences even be fodder for news stories if there were a healthy, functioning dispute mechanism in place on Parliament Hill? It is a bit rich that MPs, like me, whose instinct is to import private sector standards into the public service, so rarely turn our attention to a situation that would be untenable in the private sector—conveniently, the situation that allows for the maximum exploitation of staff.

Outside of these day-to-day office dynamics, staffers are ever-aware of the fact that their job security hinges on the results of the next election, which is out of their hands. Staffers in ministers’ offices are equally subject to decisions far above their pay grade; a cabinet shuffle could mean anything from a new boss to a new job to no job at all.

It’s frustrating, as an MP, to have these structural barriers between me and my staff members, particularly when many of them have worked alongside me as I faced my own work stresses. There was a time when the Parliamentary Mental Health Caucus considered creating a forum, using our position to facilitate a discussion between staff and our executive, hopefully bringing some of these issues out into the open.

But it was our staff members who explained that, however well-meaning, the same structural barriers would exist within the forum. While the stigma towards mental illness as a national public health issue to be confronted has been largely broken on the Hill, the stigma and the accompanying self-censorship is still quite alive among MPs and staff when it comes to issues within their own ranks.

At the time, my staff believed that the notion that the parliamentary caucus could facilitate the kind of conversation needed was unrealistic. These barriers are, they said, not necessarily on the one-to-one level, but structural, and built in to the nature of the workplace.

Former Hill staffer Paul Wernick, through his recent advocacy, has brought the workplace culture of Parliament Hill and its unique stresses and mental health challenges to the fore, says MP Majid Jowhari. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Political parties do try to improve the situation, putting procedures in place internally. But without making foundational, likely legislative changes, they can only truly control parliamentary office dynamics insofar as they can leverage caucus discipline.

As this is my last piece in this series, I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to discuss the role I see for the Parliamentary Mental Health Caucus going forward.

While I hope that we can continue to advocate for direct action day to day on the Hill, we also intend to work alongside Canada’s mental health institutions for large-scale change. This goes beyond facilitating advocacy one-to-one with Parliamentarians, like we did when we recently hosted the Mental Health Research Canada and Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health.

Ideally, we hope to bridge the passion and efforts of the myriad accomplished organizations across Canada into a united front that can push Parliament for funding into research and, eventually, even parity among health, mental health, and disability funding.

I would like to invite all Parliamentarians who wish to be part of this undertaking to reach out. I also welcome staff who have ideas on how we can play a role facilitating further conversation in the House of Commons on ways that we can work together to create mutual support mechanisms and positive workspaces. It will take all of us, together, to continue to improve this place we are all so proud to be a part of, and build further support nationwide.

Liberal Member of Parliament Majid Jowhari represents Richmond Hill, Ont. He founded and chaired the Liberal Mental Health Caucus and, later, the Parliamentary Mental Health Caucus. He was named this year’s Parliamentary Mental Health Champion by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. This is the third of a series of three articles from him on mental health on the Hill.

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