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Expected stress

Workers’ compensation for mental stress is on the rise, but it’s not unexpected in certain occupations
Work Stress
If work stress gets to be too much and someone has to take time of work, should that be considered a job-related mental injury? Shutterstock

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Many people have to deal with a lot of stress in their jobs. If that stress gets to be too much and someone has to take time of work, should that be considered a job-related mental injury?

Stress and mental illness are becoming more recognized as potentially disabling things for workers – part of an increase in the recognition of the importance of mental health and treating mental illness in society as whole.

Psychological harassment is being treated on a similar level as physical and sexual harassment when it comes to workplace no-nos, and psychological stress can earn benefits under many workers’ compensation regimes.

However, worker’s compensation for injuries suffered in the workplace is generally predicated on the injury being unexpected and unforeseen that prevents a worker from working, therefore losing pay.

For example, the Ontario Workers’ Compensation act defines an “accident” as “a chance event,” and wilful act of someone else, or disablement arising out of and in the course of employment. With mental stress becoming more accepted as compensable in many jurisdictions, a question may arise: If the job itself is naturally stressful and workers know that going in, should it be unexpected if the workers suffer from stress without any wilful acts from someone else?

There are many jobs out there that are fast-paced and carry a high degree of responsibility and pressure.Often, this is reflected in the amount of pay those jobs have.

A surgeon is expected to perform at an extremely high level at all times, and if she doesn’t do the job properly, someone could die. A stock broker could lose a lot of other people’s money with a wrong decision. A human resources professional may have to tell people their jobs (and livelihoods) are being terminated. A 911 operator talks to people in extreme crisis all the time. Police officers and other first responders can not only see someone lose their life, but their own could also be at risk.

These jobs all carry a high level of expectation and as a result can cause a high level of stress. So it shouldn’t be unexpected when the jobs become stressful.

So when someone in one of these jobs gets so stressed she needs to take time off work, should this be considered an unexpected injury, or one that is above and beyond the normal stress of the job? What is the normal stress level of such a job? Should one expect those who apply for such jobs can handle a high amount of stress and still function?

For first responders such as paramedics, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a real issue of concern.

In Ontario, they can now receive workers’ compensation for PTSD and other jurisdictions will likely be following suit in the near future. PTSD can be triggered by extreme situations, and there’s no doubt it’s a condition that needs to be treated and makes people unable to work – and therefore should be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. It’s a serious illness in the realm of mental health and stress.

But short of an extreme mental injury like PTSD, should mental stress be a compensable workplace injury for high-stress occupations?

One could argue that construction work carries a risk of physical injury and employers in the industry take many precautions to ensure worker safety, but if an employee gets hurt on the job, she’s eligible for benefits. Many argue that mental injuries should be treated the same.

However, stress affects everyone differently, so it can be hard to measure the extent stress affects someone, versus a measurable physical injury.

Maybe it’s fair for the standards for mental stress injuries that are eligible for compensation to be the same, regardless of the type of job.

But in certain occupations, it may not be surprising if the stress level ramps up to a high level and more workers apply for workers’ compensation benefits because it becomes too much.

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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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