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Stressing the point

How an employee handles stress can indicate if she’s right for the job – unless it’s a sign of a more serious condition

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Work can be stressful, there’s no doubt about that.

Stress can be a natural product of a busy and challenging work environment. But, sometimes, stress can escalate to the point where it seriously affects not only work performance, but also a worker’s personal life. Everyone has different tolerances and responses to stress, but what if it escalates into a more serious problem? At what point is the employer liable, obligated or entitled to take action?

There have been numerous cases where employers have been liable for extra damages for the way they treated dismissed employees — with bad faith — that caused undue stress on the unfortunate employee. In a lot of these cases, it makes sense because the maligned behaviour is often pretty bad. However, there have also been wrongful dismissal cases where employees have claimed extra damages for stress that was caused by the firing, but the judges denied those damages. Judges have noted the distinction between undue stress caused by egregious conduct by the employer and normal stress someone gets out of losing her job. A similar approach can be used in the course of work — there is some level of stress to be expected on the job and employees should be expected to deal with it and continue to perform their work.

Sometimes, an employee’s stress — whether the result of work, home life or a combination of the two — can become more serious and develop into or trigger a mental illness like depression. Mental illness can be considered a disability that usually has to be accommodated, but sometimes it’s difficult for an employer to determine if an employee has such a condition. And if the employer is aware something’s wrong, how can it determine the line between a stressed employee and an illness that needs to be accommodated?

If an employee is otherwise healthy but can be easily stressed out and have an exaggerated reaction to things that can affect her emotionally and physically, should that be treated similarly to a mental illness? Should the employer have extra obligations to treat that employee with kid gloves? Should a particularly stoic employee who handles stressful situations well be favoured when it comes to opportunities?

The way different types of people handle stress can affect how effective they are in their job, which ultimately is what matters to employers. As long as that stress isn’t an indicator of a more serious mental illness, the way an employee handles the stresses of the job goes a long way to determining how good of a fit she is for that job.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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