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‘You’re gonna need a bigger… lawyer’

Worker on stress leave fired after video shows him on the beach saving toddlers from a shark

By Todd Humber

We’ve come a long way when it comes to mental health.

But we still have plenty of distance to cover when it comes to smashing stereotypes and eliminating the stigma, particularly when it comes to the workplace.

Just ask Paul Marshallsea, a 62-year-old British man who was fired after a video emerged of him wrestling a shark away from children playing in shallow waters in Australia.

But Marshallsea doesn’t need a “bigger boat” — a la the movie Jaws. Rather, he needs a good lawyer.

That’s because Marshallsea was on stress leave at the time from his job at the Pant and Dowlais Boys and Girls Club in Wales, and had travelled Down Under for a relaxing beach vacation.

His wife Wendy, also an employee of the boys and girls club, was also on stress leave and was with him in Australia. She too was dismissed.

I bet a good chunk of the people who heard about this story instantly jumped to a couple of conclusions.

First, isn’t it interesting that both Paul and his wife Wendy were on stress leave? Clearly, they’re a couple who are conspiring and malingering and trying to game the system in an effort to get paid time off work.

Second, they went to Australia? That should raise alarm bells. Nobody who is off sick from work should be travelling abroad and having fun. That’s only for the healthy, wealthy and wise, right? People on sick leave should be confined to their homes, relaxing and working with doctors to get better.

The Marshallsea case is a perfect example of why society struggles so much when it comes to addressing mental health.

As the stigma eases, and it becomes more acceptable to talk about mental health, the suspicion — particularly when it comes to paid disability leave — lingers.

It’s a cliché in disability management communities, but if a worker breaks his arm — that’s very easy to spot and predictable to fix. But if a worker struggles with mental health, there is no limb in a sling with a concrete timetable for getting back to work. That inevitably leads to a suck it up and get back to work mentality — “We all have tough days, right? But stop being such a baby.”

That’s why Canada’s new National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is so critical for employers. The voluntary standard, which we covered in depth in the Feb. 11 issue of Canadian HR Reporter, can help employers implement a systemic approach to developing a psychologically safe workplace and reduce the number of people who need to go on stress leave.

Are people faking mental health issues to get paid time off work? Undoubtedly. But there isn’t any evidence I’ve seen that suggests the rate is any higher than other forms of disability fraud. People fake bad backs, bum knees, arm injuries and the like — and yes, some people will fake stress.

But mental health and medical professionals are pretty good at ferreting out these folks and, as research and knowledge in the field gets better, we’ll be able to weed out the fakers more effectively — and also better help workers suffering with mental health issues.

There are few black-and-white answers when it comes to mental health — just plenty of shades of grey. Cases like the Marshallseas — lauded as heroes in Australia and treated like pariahs by their employer in Britain — show how difficult the problem is going to be to solve.

But we have to try, and we can’t let a few rotten apples spoil the bunch.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information. 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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