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Making trauma more traumatic

Mental injuries can be complicated and often need time and understanding during recovery
employment law
RCMP Alberta officers are seen during search, rescue and evacuation efforts as they respond to wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta., in a Twitter image posted on May 4, 2016. Courtesy RCMP Alberta/Handout via REUTERS

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Mental health awareness is a hot topic, whether its in social media discussions, stories about problems in remote communities, or in the employment context. In the latter, there has been movement towards ways employers can take steps to protect the mental health of employees and deal with mental health issues when they come up.

However, this means employers may have to be a little more patient with employees who are recovering from mental illness and remember that, more and more, mental injuries are considered on par with physical injuries. In some cases, they may need even more time and effort for recovery.

Oil and gas company Syncrude is finding out what difficulties can come up when the mental health of a worker is compromised and requires a lot of time and treatment. The worker, who had been employed with Syncrude since 2002, joined its fire department in 2007. In addition to providing emergency services for Syncrude worksites, he and the department also responded to emergencies in the surrounding community near Fort McMurray, Alta.

Over time, the worker developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he believed was cumulative and not due to experiencing any one particular traumatic event. He said every time he was on a call, his adrenaline would spike and sometimes wouldn’t come down, leaving him agitated or hyper-aware.

The worker’s PTSD came to a head when he was called in to watch over a pharmacist filling prescriptions during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. He was diagnosed with PTSD in March 2017 and went off work to receive full-time treatment.

However, in February 2018, Syncrude told the worker he was expected to return to work within a week, despite the fact his mental health-care providers and the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board didn’t think he was ready. The worker’s benefits and Syncrude’s top-up payments were suspended. However, the worker didn’t return to work and was eventually fired, leading to a wrongful dismissal lawsuit and human rights complaint.

Syncrude hasn’t filed a statement of defence yet and nothing has been proven in court, but either way some damage has been done. The worker says his mental health has deteriorated because of the stress of being told to come back to work and then losing his job, and he won’t be able to work as a firefighter or paramedic again.

His mental health issues have affected his personal life and he’s obviously worse off financially after first losing his benefits and then his job. And of course Syncrude has to deal with a lawsuit and a human rights complaint. It’s a messy situation.

Was it worth it for Syncrude? Should it have been more sensitive to the worker’s mental health issues? Socially, mental health awareness is prominent these days and legally, many jurisdictions have been increasing legal liability for employee mental health – including both human rights protection and workers’ compensation entitlement. An employer that doesn’t recognize and respect the seriousness of mental health risks legal liability, employee disengagement, and potential reputational damage in this day and age of mental health advocacy.

Not to mention the damage of losing a good employee who could potentially come back after proper treatment – in an interview with the Canadian Press, the worker above said he was “really good and loved” his job.

Like physical injuries, mental injuries can be serious and often need proper treatment and time to heal before a worker is ready to come back to work – especially if the job itself is stressful and requires a high level of functioning. If such an injury is established to the point of having no doubt about its seriousness – such as a medical diagnosis of PTSD – employers would be wise to take a measured and considerate approach to ensure the employee is allowed to properly heal.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

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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