A Look at the Workplace Psychological Safety Act in Massachusetts

A graphic of a human brain and the words "Workplace Psyhchological Safety Act"

On October 10, 2023, a significant event took place in Boston. Over 500 participants rallied in support of the Workplace Psychological Safety Act.

If passed, this groundbreaking legislation could become the first of its kind in the United States to hold employers accountable for perpetuating or ignoring psychological abuse in the workplace.

Workplace bullying and mobbing affects nearly 50 million American workers. Consequences range from feelings of shame and self-blame to severe mental and physical health problems, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and even suicide.

The staggering numbers are attributed to lack of oversight and loopholes in our current system and date back to shifts in anti-discrimination laws in the 1980s and 90s. At that time, courts began requiring proof of intent instead of proof of impact and rendered the law ineffective at disrupting social hierarchies.

The bill’s current draft aligns with sexual harassment law, which establishes a hostile work environment as the baseline for legal recourse. If passed, the new law would decouple requirements for complainants to link mistreatment to their membership in a protected class and provide recourse for those not in a protected class. It would also challenge the current discrimination standard, which requires the complainant to overcome the nearly impossible hurdle of proving intent.

Workplace psychological abuse is a form of employee exploitation rooted in the avoidance of employer liability, and employees currently have no legal rights to psychological safety at work.

Adjacent laws such as the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) law requires victims to prove not only the abuser’s intent but also severe emotional distress, a threshold that is nearly impossible to meet and requires victims to have incurred harm. Consequently, employers are negatively incentivized to address the issue, the majority often choosing to sidestep a perceived threat of liability rather than prioritize human well-being.

The Act provides targeted and victimized employees with legal recourse against individuals and employers who create a toxic work environment by participating, perpetuating or ignoring psychological abuse. It focuses on unethical and unprofessional behaviors utilizing a reasonable person standard.

Currently, it is perfectly legal to be mentally abusive at work in the U.S., even though it is illegal in most of the industrialized world.

The Workplace Psychological Safety Act would enable employees to call for internal investigations, bypass flawed processes via state labor commission investigations, and sue violating employers or individuals. Crucially, it allows public disclosure of case outcomes, breaking the silence often imposed by non-disclosure agreements.

But the Act doesn’t stop at individual recourse.

It mandates employers to proactively address psychological abuse. They must adopt policies, conduct annual climate surveys, initiate prompt third-party investigations, and take responsibility when the outcome favors the targeted employee. Further, it tackles the systemic issue: the oppressive, dehumanizing system that perpetuates stereotypes and marginalizes certain groups. It demands organizational accountability, requiring quarterly reporting of various metrics to government agencies for public access.

This Act has already passed in the Rhode Island Senate and awaits a bill number in New York City. It represents a significant stride towards psychologically safe workplaces and necessary protections for every worker in the country.

To learn more about the Workplace Psychological Safety Act visit WPSAct.org.

This blog was contributed directly to Workplace Fairness. It is published with permission.

About the Authors:

  • Vicki Courtemanche
    • On March 15, 2018, Vicki left her paycheck on the table and walked away from her job. She’d been psychologically abused for 15 months and had no idea it was distinctive of the phenomenon of workplace bullying and mobbing. The facts were not debatable. The bully’s behavior was deviant, unethical, and unprofessional: the complete antithesis of workplace behavioral expectancy posted, printed, and distributed throughout the institution where she was employed for more than two decades. She believed her employer’s representative employees when they told her there was a viable complaint process and investigations would ensue. It was only in the aftermath she realized the bully’s aberrant behavior was only the tip of the iceberg of psychologically abusive workplace behavior. What lay beneath was far more dangerous, but she couldn’t see any of it. It was the ultimate con.
    • Embracing her faith, she began her advocacy work garnering organizational endorsements for workplace anti-abuse legislation shortly after leaving her toxic work environment. In 2019, she testified about her workplace experience at the Massachusetts State House. In 2020, she began serving as a support group leader for Dignity Together. In 2021, she created and ran testimony trainings to encourage advocates to come forward. More than 50 advocates testified in tandem at the Massachusetts State House. In 2022, she served as the director for the first national protest in the U.S. to raise public awareness about workplace bullying and mobbing. The protest made USA Today. Later that year, she co-founded End Workplace Abuse and co-authored the Workplace Psychological Safety Act. She freely admits advocating has proved to 
  • Debra Falzoi
    • When Deb saw her former employer in higher ed embolden an abusive higher-up in 2007, she knew she had to challenge the system that allows employers to police themselves with no consequence. In her own career, she felt held back by higher-ups who wanted to look the part of leader but didn’t take responsibility for maintaining psychologically safe work cultures, part of leadership. She saw firsthand how those in power channel sexism and racism through bullying acts to maintain their power.
    • When she saw this hypocrisy in the anti-bullying space, she knew she had to create a better way, where we walk the talk to inspire with humility, flatten the hierarchy, embrace mistakes, talk through problems, and value skills and backgrounds. Believing all employees deserve psychological safety, dignity, and respect at work for well-being, Deb co-founded End Workplace Abuse to move the needle on safer workplaces, building on her decade of working to create a national movement to end this epidemic.
    • As a coach with Dignity Together, Deb helps employees navigate and heal from workplace abuse and define themselves according to their own values. She hosts the “Screw the Hierarchy” podcast and has been quoted in numerous media outlets including Redbook, Forbes, Monster, and Truthout. She co-authored the Workplace Psychological Safety Act and developed a base of thousands of supporters of workplace anti-abuse legislation nationwide.

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