A New Era in Workers’ Compensation: Chronic Mental Stress

​​Last week I had the tremendous privilege to attend the Gala for Decade of Advancing Workplace Mental Health, hosted by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. What a pleasure to be among so many wonderful people working for such a great cause. It was a very moving experience. At the gala, the new book, The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada, by Leanne Fournier and Mary Ann Baynton, was released. A digital version of book is available worldwide for free download. It has been incredible to be part of this evolution and to see the tremendous improvements in workplace mental health over just 10 short years and it is exciting to be part of this new era going forward. Think about it, just 10 years ago, we rarely even talked about mental health, especially in the workplace. Now, we have legal protection for workers from violence and harassment in the workplace, we have a National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, and workers’ compensation boards across the country are providing benefits to workers who suffer mental injury because of their work. We are at a pivotal point in history. Yet, even with these amazing advancements, there is still so much work to do.

A New Era in Workers’ Compensation – Mental Stress Workers’ compensation is undergoing a major change across the country. The system is advancing from entitlement for physical injuries only to entitlement for work-related mental stress. We know these things don’t happen quickly, but we should also remember that workers’ compensation only came into force about 100 years ago.

​​It was a full 25 years from the time the Royal Commission on Relations of Labor Capital reported a high rate of injury among workers before the first legislation for workers’ compensation was passed. In 1889, the Commission condemned the oppressive working conditions in many industries and made recommendations for improvement. The premise for workers’ compensation was that some level of injury is inevitable and that injured workers should be compensated regardless of who was responsible for the injury. At that time, the federal government said that it would be an infringement of provincial authority to act on employers to make such improvements. The Workmen’s Compensation Act came into force in Ontario in 1914, and other provinces soon followed suit. Nova Scotia in 1915; BC in 1916; Alberta and New Brunswick in 1918. Now, all the Canadian jurisdictions have workers compensation legislation. Many employers were fearful that compensation would put them out of business. As we know, we have many more organizations now than we did then.

It’s really no surprise that workers compensation boards across the country are beginning to accept claims for mental stress. It is a natural evolution that follows the evolution of the workplace hazards from primarily physical to a blend of physical and psychological hazards. While nearly all provincial jurisdictions are accepting claims for traumatic mental stress, only the North-West Territories & Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Alberta currently accept claims for chronic mental stress. The WSIB in Ontario will accept these claims as of January 1, 2018, and is currently embroiled in a lawsuit for denial of these claims prior to the new policy. While many people agree that it is a needed benefit, there is significant concern among employers and worker advocates about the new policies, how they will be adjudicated and the impact they will have on both workers and employers.

Confusion and Fear About Worker’s Compensation for Chronic Mental Stress Having read through all the submissions for the public consultation for the new WSIB Policy and speaking to many colleagues, I have noticed there is one common theme that stands out loud and clear. People are confused and fearful about how these claims will be decided and adjudicated. The policies of the workers’ compensation boards for entitlement to benefits for chronic mental stress are somewhat vague and there is uncertainty about the ability of the Board to make fair decisions based on the available information. Differences in entitlement criteria across jurisdictions may add to the confusion, particularly with respect to excessive workplace stressors and how to determine if the workplace stressor was the significant or predominant cause of the mental illness. Many employers and worker advocates expressed concern and frustration over the lack of available mental health services. Some submissions expressed fear that claims would be accepted for workers who already have mental illness, citing the “Thin Skull Theory”. I must admit, I found this quite disturbing and dripping with stigma. When a worker with a pre-existing condition, whether it is related to their physical or mental health, is seen as the problem, there are likely deeper issues in the workplace that must be addressed. The issues around entitlement and adjudication will eventually be ironed out. In fact, precedents are already being set. In the meantime, many employers and workers may be caught in a quagmire as the compensation boards, employers, worker advocates and health care providers navigate this new landscape.

So what do you do?

An Ounce of Prevention ​​As an Occupational Health and Safety Professional, I have always loved the quote by Benjamin Franklin,​​ ​​ "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Yes, we are in an age of rampant mental health issues. We have all seen the stats. Although its important to know the Board’s policies in your jurisdiction, focusing on them will not help you avoid claims or manage them well. In fact, it just might add to your own stress level for your already loaded plate! Let’s face it, these policies are coming into force because chronic mental stress is a workplace hazard. Workers are suffering and in many cases managers and supervisors are caught between a rock and hard place. They want to help, but they are over-stressed themselves and don’t have the skills, ability or support to make the necessary changes. A lot of fear and confusion (and claims) can be avoided by focusing on the real issues: how the work is organized and managed. Many employers need to take steps to improve psychological working conditions. So what do you do? It’s really all about risk management. Employers need to take action before a claim is filed to reduce the risk of mental harm to the worker and the risks to the business (e.g. cost, reputation, customer service, etc.) that accompany a claim for mental stress. The aim of risk management in occupational health and safety is to reduce the risk of injury by understanding the needs of the worker to do the work in a healthy and safe manner. It often requires making suitable adjustments to the work and providing education and training to improving the worker’s knowledge, skills and abilities. Here are some tips that may help.

  • Ensure you have a solid policy on workplace harassment, bullying and violence.

  • Ensure all employees in leadership roles are trained in the policy, how to avoid situations from arising, and what to do if a situation does arise.

  • Identify work-related stressors and assess the risk.

  • Ensure your disability and claims management processes include addressing mental stress and are integrated with other key organizational processes.

  • Equip workers for challenges by providing training to help build coping skills and resiliency.

Early intervention is the key. The goal is to keep the worker employed, which is good for both the worker and the employer, and, to get them back to work and as early and as safe as possible if they do need to be absent for treatment or recovery. We need to do this, to carry this work forward. Not only for the people in this generation, but for our future generations as well! ■

Would You Like Help?

Hale Health and Safety Solutions offers training and consulting to help you prevent and manage chronic mental stress claims.

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Liz Horvath is the Founder of Hale Health and Safety Solutions. Her 20+ years of experience in occupational health and safety combined with experience in disability and claims management help clients significantly reduce incidents and claims costs, while improving business results. Liz has helped many organizations through difficult situations involving psychological health and safety. In her previous roles, she developed and delivered basic and advanced level training on Workers’ Compensation Claims Management to hundreds of participants across Canada. She also helped to create the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. She is a sought-after speaker on integration of occupational and psychological health and safety and leadership for in-house and public events. Her recent talks for the Conference Board of Canada and Global Leading Voices generated significant interest.

For more information, visit halehealthandsafety.com or contact Liz Horvath directly at ehorvath@halehealthandsafety.com.

#WSIB #chronicmentalstress #workerscompensation #psychologicalhealth #mentalhealth #humanresources

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