Border workforce well-being: Canada takes care of its employees

21 June 2017
By John Ossowski, President of the Canada Border Services Agency

The health and wellness of our workforce is critical to the success of modern border management organizations. While the operating environments differ between each of our countries – for example, some of us work in an armed environment, or within different legal frameworks – we all share a common purpose. We work to protect our country’s security, while enabling prosperity within a complex range of border-related threats. To be successful, all of us must count on a strong and enabled workforce.

At the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), we work hard to support our employees and build a strong organizational culture. Our 14,000 employees deliver a wide range of border services with a dedication to excellence, professionalism, and service. In our experience, building a strong organizational culture is not easy:

  • It takes a concerted effort, and participation of leaders from all levels of the organization;
  • It takes a plan that is supported by managers and employees;
  • It takes engagement and motivation;
  • You need communications that are accessible and consistent;
  • Most of all, you need a strong commitment and focus over many years to make it work.

For the CBSA, there are three components to how we approached the well‑being of our workforce within the organization: the first is a plan to develop and support our employees called the CBSA’s People Strategy; the second is an initiative to raise awareness and remove the stigma associated with mental health; and the third is a tool called the Integrity Continuum that we use to create a balance between a values-based and a rules-based culture.

CBSA’s People Strategy

Launched in 2015, the People Strategy is the CBSA’s roadmap for strengthening and reinforcing a commitment to our people. Its goal is to help focus efforts and ensure that the right people are working in the right places, with the best tools and training. This strategy sets the strategic direction for people management, and provides an overarching roadmap to guide leaders at all levels on how to invest in people and realize the Agency’s vision for its workforce.

The strategy’s three priorities are developing the workforce (training employees so that they can achieve results for Canadians), supporting leadership (leading employees effectively to advance Agency transformation), and creating an enabling environment (providing effective tools and a healthy workplace for employees and leaders). It is supported through hundreds of activities at the Agency and local unit level. For example, under the strategy, the CBSA has:

  • tailored training, development, coaching, and mentoring as top priorities;
  • defined competency profiles for the workforce, and aligned recruiting practices to target those competencies;
  • developed tools and mechanisms to support employee mobility within the Agency;
  • developed a performance management programme that sets clear expectations, provides constructive feedback, and supports talent development;
  • identified, assessed, and nurtured leadership potential;
  • engaged employees in matters that affect their work, environment, and professional development;
  • modernized the human resources services delivery model to reduce the administrative burden for managers;
  • promoted awareness of values, ethics, and standards of conduct through training.

While the CBSA is starting to see results from this strategy and its associated activities, the goal is to have an efficient workforce that achieves results for Canadians, with outstanding leadership demonstrated at all levels, and in a workplace that is respectful, healthy, and efficient, where people strive to excel.

Creating a healthy and respectful workplace

Years ago, mental health was not something people talked about. Today, we are working to break down the barriers, reduce stigma, and create workplaces that promote and support employee mental health. Mental health in the workplace affects everyone, whether we are managers or employees.

One in five Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in his or her lifetime, and these statistics are similar all over the world. Mental illness affects all of us, whether personally or through a family member, a friend, or a co-worker.

The CBSA’s Strategy to Support Mental Health was launched in July 2016. This strategy is organized around the themes of prevention, intervention, and support.


Under the theme of prevention, we promote understanding and awareness to reduce the stigma, and protect the psychological health and safety of employees and people in our care. We followed many other organizations in launching a campaign called ‘Not Myself Today,’ created by Partners for Mental Health, a national charitable organization accredited by Imagine Canada. This national campaign raises awareness and reduces stigma with respect to mental health issues across the country.

As part of the campaign, we engaged thousands of our employees and managers in a dialogue on mental health using a variety of communications tools, videos, and learning events. For example, we developed an internal communications network where employees can consult information, explore self-assessment tools, and find out where to seek help for themselves, their colleagues, and their family members. At the same time, we adopted mandatory online training for all employees on mental health awareness, and creating a respectful workplace.


Under the intervention theme, we began training our frontline officers on how to manage mental health issues within the public they serve. We used courses such as the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mental Health First Aid Course. This course, developed using best practices from Australia, is helping officers from CBSA to deal with travellers, clients, and people in its care who exhibit signs of mental health issues.

We are also adapting the scenario-based ‘use-of-force training’ to include the importance of communication with respect to mental health issues. These initiatives provide a comprehensive array of crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques to reduce conflict, and resolve crises with minimal or no use of force.


Under the support theme, we are considering mental health issues in the development of policy to ensure that any potential mental health implications are addressed upfront. We are developing a post-traumatic stress injuries action plan to promote prevention and early intervention through continued education, including additional support for care and treatment where an injury has occurred.

The CBSA is also developing training and support mechanisms to help our officers mitigate the risks of exposure to offensive material that they encounter as part of their duties. This includes research-based intervention tools that help disrupt the way memories of disturbing and traumatic sensory inputs are formed, which will strengthen officer resilience.

The Integrity Continuum

Fostering a culture of workforce integrity is vital to the way we do business. We developed a tool called the Integrity Continuum, using best practices from the WCO, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and other international partners. The Integrity Continuum is a way of looking at the range of approaches to managing the integrity of a workforce through a mix of compliance-based and values‑based strategies:

  • Compliance-based strategies are detailed controls that are put in place to prevent misconduct through discipline, and include tools such as codes of conduct, mandatory reporting of misconduct, and disciplinary actions;
  • Values-based strategies promote good behaviour and an ethical culture, and include tools such as values and ethics training, displaying leadership commitment, and raising awareness of the organization’s values.

In recent years, the focus at the CBSA has been on implementing values-based strategies to build on the robust compliance regime that is in place. A values-based approach is set by a strong leadership commitment. As leaders we have to set the tone at the top of our organizations, and model the behaviours we expect from our staff.

Once the tone is set, another important aspect in building an effective integrity management programme is raising awareness of the desired values through communication. Employees must be aware of the values expected of them, and need to feel like they are a part of the culture in the way that they uphold these values. Our internal approach is to promote integrity as an expectation at every opportunity, and ensure that messages reflect a theme of employee empowerment.

In collaborating with leaders of other Customs administrations internationally, we have realized that our approaches to compliance strategies are largely similar. However, our organizations tend to take different approaches to the use of values-based strategies. In order to be truly effective at managing the integrity of our people, a governance approach that is balanced between the two ends of the spectrum is required. We all strive to build organizational cultures that reflect the highest level of integrity, but we must remain vigilant in striving for the right balance.

The border workforce of the future

Border workforce well‑being is essential to modern border management organizations. A healthy and engaged workforce is achieved through a supportive organizational culture, and is built by adopting both formal and informal mechanisms to strengthen employee wellness and integrity. Culture is something that is built deliberately to not only reflect the history of an organization, but also the pride its employees will carry into the future.

The well‑being of our workforces is directly linked to our ability to provide integrated border services while safeguarding our economies and populations. To fulfil our mandates, we must all focus on building organizations that invest in people and care about their well‑being.

John Ossowski was appointed President of the Canada Border Services Agency on 7 December 2016.


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