No compensation for stress caused by employment decisions: Tribunal

Change of responsibilities and removal after perceived threat were traumatic to worker but were legitimate management decisions, tribunal says

An Ontario worker is not entitled to compensation for mental stress at work caused by the employer’s employment decisions and contributed to by her own actions, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal has ruled.

The worker was a costs and accounts clerk for a public-sector employer in northern Ontario. In 1996, a new clerk joined the department. The new co-worker happened to be the second wife of the ex-husband of the worker’s close friend. Though they generally got along, there was some conflict, including arguments and one incident where the co-worker threw a stapler at the worker. The co-worker apologized but the two continued to have an uneasy relationship in the workplace.

Tensions with co-worker and new supervisor

The worker also had problems with a new supervisor who was appointed in 1999. Before the new supervisor started, the worker claimed she didn’t have any problems. She was sometimes late with reports and wandered to another floor where friends worked but the old supervisor didn’t issue any formal discipline. However, the new supervisor was not as tolerant of the worker’s habits and this caused some tension between them.

The worker’s distrust grew after some further incidents and she eventually refused to communicate with co-workers except by e-mail. She copied her supervisor on every e-mail, regardless of the importance. She became isolated from other employees and at one point replied to an invitation by requesting she be left off the list for “personal matters.”

In late 1999, the supervisor took away some of her responsibilities and removed her role as acting supervisor when the supervisor was away. Shortly after, the worker refused an order that involved instructing another employee because she felt it was a supervisory duty. She was given a disciplinary letter for insubordination on Jan. 18, 2000. She grieved the discipline but lost the grievance.

Employer perceived threat

The worker became stressed because she felt the workplace was turning against her. When she found out her rival co-worker’s husband, who was a union steward, was representing her in her grievance, she said she “could understand how someone could go postal, not that I could ever do it myself.” The comment got back to the plant manager, who considered it a threat. The manager decided to remove the worker from the workplace until she was assessed by a doctor. At a meeting on Feb. 25, 2000, the worker was informed of the decision and the company nurse offered to take her to an appointment immediately. The worker said she had to walk past other employees as she left and she was crying as she went.

The worker returned to work but felt “under the microscope” and isolated. She was off on stress leave three times in 2000 and 2001, lost weight and had stomach and bowel problems.

The worker filed a claim for workers’ compensation from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, saying there was “an escalating series of incidents” that were contributing factors to her disability.

Stress from employment decisions exempt from compensation

The tribunal noted mental stress was not subject to workers’ compensation benefits under the Workers’ Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) if the stress was the result of employment decisions made in the course of business, such as termination and discipline.

While the tribunal acknowledged the worker had difficulties with co-workers, it found she “exacerbated the friction,” through actions such as only communicating by e-mail and refusing invitations. It also found the supervisor had a right to address errors and change her responsibilities within reason.

The tribunal also found the decision to remove the worker was within management’s right to protect the workplace. Though it was traumatic for the worker, it was a reasonable action taken in good faith based on the information the plant manager had. The worker was given a chance to respond at the meeting and the appointment was scheduled immediately to provide an opportunity to return to work as soon as possible.

The tribunal ruled the worker was not entitled to benefits because her stress was the result of reasonable management decisions, which are exempted by the WSIA as contributing factors to a compensable stress condition.

“We have no doubt (the worker’s) emotional difficulties were exacerbated by her workplace stressors,” the tribunal said. “In our view, the key facts of this case are excluded by (the WSIA) as employer’s decisions relating to the worker’s employment.” See Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal Decision No. 3022/07, 2008 CarswellOnt 8637 (Ont. W.S.I.A.T.).

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