BC Hydro: Seeing Beyond The Job Description

This video from the 2018 Presidents Group Roundtable features Chris O’Riley, Presidents Group member and President and Chief Operating Officer of BC Hydro. He talks about BC Hydro’s Return to Work program: seeing beyond the job description.

Video Transcript:

(Chris O’Riley) At BC Hydro we have 6,500 employees and they work in office environments as well as in the field. 2/3 of our workforce is unionized. We’re considered a high hazard industry and so safety is a really big deal at BC Hydro, and we have a pretty good safety record but unfortunately we have a number of employees who have acquired disabilities over the course of the year, sometimes because of an accident at work sometimes because of something that’s happened outside of work and I’m going to talk about this population of people with disabilities in my talk today.

One of the ways that we support these employees is through a recovery service and return to work program. So, we have a recovery team that helps employees who are returning to work from all types of disabilities and that could be permanent or temporary and it could include a physical ailment or increasingly mental health and addiction issues.

An important thing that we’ve learned is that it’s really important for employees to stay at work and stay connected with the workforce and their colleagues and to continue contributing and if they do that, they come back more quickly and in the greatest capacity possible. We’ve learned that we need to recognize the importance of the whole person and sometimes you can get caught up in what the person’s trade is or their educational background and think of what they can do is based on that or what they’ve done before and really think more broadly about what they can contribute.

Our program is built around these 3 areas of building a really strong partnership and a network of support for the employee, being flexible as you move through a transition of an employee’s recovery and return to work. And then looking beyond this job description that they’ve been tagged with in the past.

I want to go through a story of an individual, his name is Doug and I’m also using this story with his permission. I’ve known Doug for many years in the company, he started working at BC Hydro as an electrician, in 1991. He was promoted in 2008 to be a trades training instructor at our technical school. Soon after that, he ran into some performance issues and it became an escalating situation and there was performance management involved, the union gets involved and eventually we get our return to work program involved and he was assessed through that as having an addiction.

We supported him through the program, BC Hydro pays 75% of the cost of those programs and he was able to come back to work in a fully functioning, full capability, including a follow up program with random testing and counseling and monitoring over time. A couple years later he was in a really bad car accident. 

It was outside of work, two people in the car were killed and as a result of that accident over the next five years he went through a whole series of operations for his knee and his hip and his shoulder. Obviously, he couldn’t do the job that was laid out for him and what he’d been doing previously.

After each surgery we had to come up with a program of modified duties for Doug, to ensure that he could keep contributing to his training role. We were also able to provide partial coverage because there were parts of it including the field aspect that he wasn’t able to do at certain points in this transition, so people filled in behind him. 

We were very conscious that such a traumatic and painful series of operations could have derailed his addiction recovery and so we worked closely with the recovery team to keep him connected and maintain his sense of belonging and he was able to carry through his recovery and stay on track with his addiction.

Throughout the process, Doug was always part of the team, and his manager was there. We had an expert in this through our return to work program. The unions involved, that’s a really big part of our process and health practitioners were involved to ensure we had the right program in place for Doug given where he was in the transition.

Today I’m really pleased to say that Doug remains a very dedicated employee at BC Hydro and he’s got a big job as a trainer and as a safety leader in our organization. In our society I think we have some really strong and freighted even, cultural notions around work and you could even say baggage around work, and you can see this in the phrase ‘pulling your weight’ or in the question Minister Simpson asked, “What do you do?”

I think both of those concepts would have been difficult for Doug in his time, in his recovery period to respond to. I think we recognized with this return to work program that we’re pushing against those notions and I think they go back a long way they’re probably rooted in evolutionary biology somewhere in our past but we’re pushing back and that’s why, because we’re pushing back we need a formal and a forceful program even, to ensure these efforts are successful.

Just to summarize and offer some advice, I appreciate this is more challenging in smaller organizations than larger ones, but I think a form of these practices can be applied anywhere.

I think the worst thing any employer can do is sideline an individual who’s dealing with a health issue whether it’s a physical or increasingly a mental health issue and that sidelining creates the isolation and reinforces the challenge and I think makes the recovery more difficult.

The 3 practices that have been key for us is really building a strong partnership with the network. They’re having a network to support the individual going through this very difficult circumstance, really being flexible in each stage of the transition is different and needs a different set of circumstances and I think it’s important to look for opportunities to at times push the employee and challenge them physically and mentally and try and get them as active as we can in the role.

I think looking beyond the job description, I like the quotation about SAP, “Everyone is a talent, so what is it that this person brings that they can contribute in a different way in the organization.” Again, getting past the label that’s been put on them through their trade, or qualifications, or job descriptions.

Talking about why we do this, I think what I’ve found is the supporting employees who are going through this kind of challenge just really drives tremendous loyalty and commitment from that person when they get through it. It’s a tremendous thing and Doug is a great example of that. I think not just from the employee but from the people around them who care for them and work with them and when they see the organization supporting that person and helping them get back to a place where they’re a strong contributor, it’s just such a powerful thing.

So, if we’re looking for a business case, for me, that’s what makes this a really worthwhile investment.

Thank you very much.