Mental Stress in the Workplace: Manage Your Risk

In 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard). This is a set of guidelines, tools and resources designed to help employers understand the benefits of maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace.
Employers realize that a healthy workplace assists with recruiting and maintaining top talent, improving productivity, and reducing absenteeism costs. They understand the negative impact mental illness can have on a workplace, such as increased absenteeism costs, increased uses of the Employment and Family Assistance Program (EAP), and Short Term and Long Term Disability Insurance (70% of disability costs in Canada are attributed to mental illness).  Although the Standard is voluntary, an employer will be held accountable if they are aware of a mental health issue in the workplace (e.g., mistreatment of a co-worker, harassment, threat of violence) and fail to assist the employee.

On the Standard’s one-year anniversary, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal made mental health a focus for employers once again. According to Decision No. 2157/09 in Hicks Morley’s FTR Now, a nurse claimed to have been the subject of ill treatment for 12 years by a doctor in the same office. The employer was aware of the conduct, and handled it by reducing the employee’s duties. The employee alleged to have developed an adjustment disorder as well as anxiety and depression because of this mistreatment. The employee then applied for WSIB, only to have the claim denied because there was no “acute reaction to a sudden and traumatic event” during the course of regular employment.   

The employee appealed the WSIB decision with the Tribunal and challenged the constitutionality of the WSIA subsections, which were the basis for the denial of her claim. The employee alleged discrimination based on mental disabilities. The Tribunal granted the employee an appeal and determined that specific subsections of the WSIA did indeed violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

This is a significant development for employers, as the WSIB’s Traumatic Mental Stress Policy has always considered an “acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event” to be legitimate but that chronic conditions developed over time were never considered, especially not in the work environment. This recent decision launches employers from the position of viewing the Standard as voluntary and “the right thing to do” to becoming a true and costly reality. The risk of employees attempting to claim mental stress as a result of regular workplace stressors is real.  

How to manage this risk 
Employers should regularly evaluate and monitor the mental health of their employees and take action to establish a healthy workplace.  We encourage you to implement some form of the Standard, such as assessing the risk for mental stress, developing and/or reviewing relevant policies, and training managers and employees.  Keep in mind that employees are individuals, and a cookie cutter approach may not accommodate every employee; however, developing a strategy to manage mental health in the workplace is a great start.  

Please contact your Cowan Consultant or Susan Novo, Manager of Health and Disability to schedule training sessions or further explore a strategy for mental health in your workplace.


Mental Health Commission of Canada
Hicks Morley: FTR Now May 15, 2014