Articles from the Cobourg HRPAO conference

Special compendium of articles from managing editor John Hobel's presentation in Cobourg, Ont., on Oct. 6, 2004.

Welcome to Canadian HR Reporter's website. Below are the articles referred to by John Hobel, managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, during his presentation on mental health in the workplace.

Mental health articles

On-the-job harassment precipitates co-worker violence: inquest

Mental health absenteeism threatens to break disability bank

Managers need training on mental illness: Study

With mental illness, raising awareness is still the next frontier

Physical disability going down, mental disability going up

Drain the workplace stress swamp

Employee wins payout from BMO for burnout

Employers could be on the hook for damages for employees bullied by co-workers

On-the-job harassment precipitates co-worker violence: inquest

By Lesley Young

The coroner’s inquest into the fatal shooting rampage at an OC Transpo bus garage in Ottawa last April has called for federal and provincial legislation on workplace violence, including co-worker physical and “psychological” violence.

The jury said Ottawa and the provinces should enact a mandatory zero-tolerance harassment and violence policy in the workplace, which should clearly define violence not only as physical violence, but also as “psychological violence such as: bullying, mobbing, teasing, ridicule or any other act or words that could psychologically hurt or isolate a person in the workplace.”

The recommendation is among 77 made by the five-person jury based on six weeks of testimony into the murder-suicide at an OC Transpo bus garage. Former bus driver Pierre Lebrun, who suffered depression and job-related grievances, including complaints of being harassed at work because of his stutter, shot and killed four OC workers before committing suicide.

The jury stated there needs to be a broader recognition that non-physical violence can have as much impact as physical abuse.

Jim Stiles, consultant with Arete Safety and Protection Inc., a nation-wide violence prevention training company in Vancouver, said that co-worker violence prevention regulations need to be included in all occupational health and safety regulations. He added that even companies with thorough violence prevention policies often underestimate and ignore signs of “psychological” abuse or harassment such as teasing.

Occupational health and safety regulations in some provinces include violence prevention regulations, such as in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and most recently, Nova Scotia. Newfoundland is working on regulations, and currently, the federal government is considering amending Part II of the Canada Labour Code to include workplace violence provisions.

The B.C. oh&s regulations include a “workplace conduct provision,” which refers to threatening co-worker behaviour and attitudes that could lead to physical abuse.

“It is important to recognize and acknowledge that violence in the workplace is a safety issue, and then to apply occupational health and safety principles to it. Traditionally, violence has been considered a criminal activity and we apply an after-the-fact treatment as opposed to preventive,” said Stiles.

At the inquest, Peter Collins, a forensic psychiatrist, told the jury the rage that prompted Lebrun to gun down four OC Transpo workers was fuelled by harassment and fanned by a workplace environment that did nothing about it. In his report to the inquest, Collins stated, “Pierre Lebrun worked in a poisoned environment. He was repeatedly harassed due to his speech impediment and his (facial) tick disorder and this appeared to be common knowledge.

“He complained about the ridicule to a number of individuals at OC Transpo. It was severe enough to contribute to his psychological problems, which are well documented by his family practitioner.

“Although it would be impossible to foretell the events of April 6, 1999, there was enough known of both the personal and workplace factors that the potential for some form of workplace violence was present.” Collins pointed to an assault (slap) on a co-worker prior to the shooting.

In the recommendations, the jury specifically targeted OC Transpo, stating: “Evidence indicated that complaints in the workplace were not taken seriously and no action was taken.”

Stiles said employers tend to ignore cases of “psychological” abuse for fear that reporting it may escalate a situation, or that they are being alarmists. Where regulations are in place, it’s easier for companies to carry out discipline, he added.

The jury also recommended a zero-tolerance policy include progressive discipline.

An anti-harassment policy should be part of a company’s culture, where there is recognition that all workers will be treated with dignity and respect, said Hassan Yussuff, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress. “The sadness of this experience (OC Transpo) could have been prevented. I am not sure employers ‘get it’ in terms of the message. Here, a number of people have been killed because of the effect of harassment and nothing was done to stop it.”

Frema Engel, of Engel & Associates, an organizational change and trauma management company in Montreal, said that some people who are traumatized, like Lebrun at OC Transpo, who have nowhere to go, just escalate to violence. “I am not suggesting he was traumatized. But there is a high correlation between abuse and stress.

“Abuse causes stress, and high levels of stress cause abuse,” added Engel.

The jury also said violence and harassment policies should include mandatory reporting and a “process where the employee can see that action has been taken.” The recommendations include 53 dealing with employee-employer workplace issues, all addressing harassment and violence issues. A number of recommendations were made on violence prevention training, and co-ordination of prevention efforts between a company’s health department, EAP and any outside support people.

Psychological violence

Jim Stiles with Arete Safety & Prevention Inc. in Vancouver said a clear definition of the “hazard” is important to address the issue of psychological violence.

A clear definition of hazardous behaviours leads to clarification of the options available to an organization for dealing with them. This, in turn, allows an organization to draft a policy statement from which an effective violence prevention program can be built, he said.

Bullying, teasing and ridicule are often a component of, or precursor to, acts of violence, said Stiles. And the context of these behaviours can have significant implications for the process of dealing with them, as shown by the following examples.

•Teasing or ridicule related to race, gender or religion will have implications under human rights legislation, and this should be reflected in an organization’s HR policy.

•Teasing or ridicule related to a worker’s tardiness, “bad haircut” or clothing, for example, may be dealt with under an organization’s Employee Code of Conduct Policy, or may be addressed in a union’s collective agreement.

•It is possible that these behaviours could have implications regarding oh&s legislation, as is the case in B.C.’s workplace conduct regulation.

•Any of these behaviours, regardless of context, can ultimately lead to situations where there are implications under the criminal code.

Stiles said that in moving towards a preventive approach to workplace violence, employers, regulatory bodies and workers, need to recognize that violence is a legitimate safety concern, and there must be willingness to actively address it.

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Mental health absenteeism threatens to break disability bank

HR should set up an infrastructure for early intervention and a program to address challenges arising for employees returning to work

By Paula Allen

There’s good news as well as bad news in the field of disability management. The good news is more employers than ever have access to disability management programs. The bad news is employer costs due to health-related absenteeism are rising rapidly. Disability management programs once had a positive impact on costs, but they are not as effective as they were. Why? And what can be done?

The why is straightforward: Most programs were designed to manage physical problems. However, there’s an increasing number of mental health claims and claims that are influenced by non-medical factors such as conflicts between co-workers. Disability management guidelines do not help resolve problems such as performance or personality conflicts.

To alleviate the situation, HR departments should establish an infrastructure for early intervention, and a program to address the unique challenges that may arise for employees returning to work.

The dramatic increase in disability management claims has put a strain on public and corporate resources — we just can’t cope anymore. Employers and disability management professionals must reassess their management of claims involving mental health issues. This reassessment must involve each of the three main areas that affect disability management: occupational, psychological and medical issues.

Occupational factors

Unresolved work-related conflicts can lead to feelings of fear, frustration, anger, hopelessness — all potential precursors to absence. When a conflict is coupled with a demanding and fast-paced environment, the result is often a “flight” response from the employee.

Several studies point to the importance of workplace relationships and employee perceptions as major predictors of how quickly someone returns to work. While such issues are not limited to mental health claims, a disproportionate amount of lengthy stress-related and physical disability absences have workplace issues as a complicating factor.

Negative perceptions are likely to amplify during an absence and affect how quickly the employee returns to work. The usual reasons for delay are the employee’s motivation and ability to focus on regaining productivity, and the motivation of the supervisor to facilitate reintegration.

As in all disability management interventions, early response is critical. Occupational interventions focus on workplace relationships, agreements regarding how work will be organized and the expectations of all parties. Critical elements of an occupational intervention should include:

•support for the workplace relationship by means of open and respectful communication focused on the issues at hand;

•clarification of issues that affect the ability to work productively, such as how work is organized;

•recognition of options and constraints, such as the ability of the employer to modify some non-essential activities of a job;

•a problem-solving framework that clarifies alternatives, including different ways to do a job, and provides an action plan so that the best options can be put in place;

•a communication structure that includes both the employee and direct supervisor discussing, negotiating and agreeing on how work should be structured to enable the employee to be the most productive.

The challenge is to establish a comprehensive response and a framework that shows respect for both the employee and the workplace.

Psychological issues

The employee’s perceptions, beliefs and patterns of behaviour all affect the response to a disability.

While not limited to these, three common situations suggest the need for psychological intervention:

•An employee who may or may not meet the criteria for disability benefits, but is experiencing a level of stress that’s interfering with the ability to function at work.

•An employee who has had a prolonged absence from work due to physical illness and appears to be losing the motivation to return.

•An employee who is in conflict about complying with recommended treatment, and sabotages treatment interventions.

The core principal of disability management is to help the employee return to normalcy, or as close to normalcy as the situation allows, as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the quality of psychological services does not always mesh with these goals. Psychological services, may actually advocate for absence without having all the information on the options the workplace can provide.

The first step must be a comprehensive assessment to clarify the psycho-social issues affecting working capacity. Experienced therapists can assist employees in building resiliency in the face of any psychological stress. They can also support the management of depression and anxiety, as well as other work-related concerns. In the best of all worlds, the therapist becomes a part of the disability management intervention team, playing a key role in the communication process.

Many psychological therapists feel their relationship with the employee precludes them from supporting a return-to-work initiative. These therapists should be provided with specific training and clear protocols to ensure they understand that disability management supports recovery, appropriate accommodation and eventually independence and health. Disability management goals are aligned with therapeutic goals.

Medical issues

In 2001, the Fraser Institute published research indicating that in 2000, Canadians waited 16.2 weeks from a general practitioner referral to appropriate treatment, a figure that’s 23.7 per cent higher than in 1999.

Lack of timely care adversely affects the employee’s quality of life, level of anxiety and recovery potential. For mental health problems, this is compounded by the relative shortage of psychiatrists and the under-treatment of depression in general.

The fact is that depression and many other mental health conditions are treatable. Understanding an employee’s symptoms is critical for comprehensive disability case management.

Once clear, the objective is care that both follows evidence-based guidelines and considers the potential impact of any medication on the employee’s ability to function during working hours.

There are, however, challenges. For example, physician’s reports are typically less precise for mental health conditions than they are for physical conditions, and secondary mental health conditions (dual diagnoses) increase complexity and prolong recovery.

Employers need to take a more active role in at least two key areas. First of all, they need to lobby, as a group, for improved access to care in the public system. Health affects productivity and ultimately the competitiveness of Canadian business.

Secondly, employers need to take some individual responsibility and not expect such change to be the solution. They must improve the management of disability issues by treating employees as individuals, not claims. Employers must address each situation comprehensively rather than relying on a one-dimensional approach.

Where to start?

Any delay in developing an infrastructure to comprehensively manage disability puts an organization at risk. Begin by considering the following:

•Consider how your organization responds to claims where multiple issues (psychological, workplace, and medical) exist.

•Determine where the approach to managing disability claims is strong and where it is not.

•For the areas where the approach falls short, determine whether you can fill the gap. For example, additional services from an employee assistance plan or disability management provider may be one option.

•Once resources are in place, make sure that processes are streamlined and efficient. Complex cases must be identified quickly and accurately to ensure the appropriate early intervention.

Disability management for mental health claims needs to be managed in a way that deals with all potential challenges. A comprehensive approach to address mental health issues ensures better management of the personal, organizational and financial risks for a corporate disability plan. Ultimately, it results in a positive employment culture and significant return on investment.

Paula Allen is business leader, disability management, for FGI, a leading provider of international employee and employer support services, based in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Managers need training on mental illness: Study

More than 90 per cent aren't trained to handle mental-health issues

By Uyen Vu

Employers may say they recognize the importance of addressing mental health issues in the workplace, but according to a survey, more than nine in 10 have not trained managers to do so.

The survey of more than 130 employers in Ontario was conducted by consulting house Mercer and by Mental Health Works, a service set up by the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Only seven per cent of respondents have trained managers to identify and address mental health issues. Close to two-thirds (65 per cent) said they have no plans to train managers on the issue in the next 12 months.

In contrast, an overwhelming majority (99 per cent, many of whom were human resource professionals) said they were aware of the duty to accommodate mental illness at work. Four out of five respondents said mental illness was driving up usage of prescription drug plans and increasing strain among employees. Three in four said mental health issues were increasing group benefits usage and short-term disability claims.

When asked what action they took to address mental illness, the most common response was to increase the range of services offered by the employee assistance program (37 per cent of respondents). Twenty-four per cent of respondents said they increased their resources for disability management, and 16 per cent said they identified and reduced sources of stress in the workplace.

Mary Ann Baynton, director of Mental Health Works, said the survey findings confirmed what she has long suspected.

“In many companies, managers are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all,” said Baynton. “They often will ignore the problem until they can’t. They will often delegate and ask someone else to deal with it.”

Worse yet, they may sometimes try to address the problem in such a way as to make things worse, said Baynton. “If they really don’t understand what the problem is, if they deal with it as a personality issue, it can create even more problems.”

When HR departments are called in to handle the problem, said Baynton, it’s likely that the situation has already escalated. “The HR person doesn’t know the build up, which means that the HR person is doing the work blindfolded.”

In fact, it’s usually the HR department that contacts Baynton’s staff to ask for training for managers.

Apart from training managers, staff at Mental Health Works also help employers accommodate people with mental illness. They start out by talking with managers to define the job that needs to be done. They then approach the employee to think of ways to modify the conditions of work and still get the job done.

“We use shuttle diplomacy in order to protect the mental health of the employee and to allow them to negotiate without being overwhelmed by the anxiety that comes with the whole process,” said Baynton.

She cautioned that employers who devise solutions and impose them on the employee are only setting themselves up for failure. “A solution that’s created in collaboration with the employee already comes with their commitment, and that’s what we want: commitment not compliance.”

Failure is also guaranteed in instances when workers put pressure on themselves to go back to work before they’re ready, she added.

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With mental illness, raising awareness is still the next frontier

Firms across Canada are starting to take note of mental health problems and the costs they represent

By Uyen Vu

In the spring of 2000, Georges Badeaux received a shocking piece of employee data.

“The plant nurse came up to me and said we had 43 people on short-term disability. Twenty-six of those were due to a mental illness,” said Badeaux, director of HR at OI Canada’s Montreal plant, which employs 675 people.

“My reaction was, ‘Oh my God. We have to do something about it,’” said Badeaux.

He’s not the only one. Companies across Canada are starting to take note of mental health problems and the costs they represent to business.

Lost productive time in the United States amounts to $8.27 billion U.S. annually due to depression-related absenteeism alone. If one counts the cost of productivity at work, what’s called presenteeism, the total cost due to depression becomes $44 U.S. billion a year, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Compelled by warnings that depression will become the second-leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020, a number of companies are taking initiatives to help workers spot the signs of mental illness.

At OI Canada, a glass-container manufacturer with five locations across Canada, Badeaux consulted with the union and employees to find out whether they were open to the idea of peer helpers.

These are employees who, after undergoing training, would be responsible for keeping an eye out for signs of depression and other mental health problems among their colleagues. They’re there to identify the problem, lend an ear, and recommend resources to workers in need of intervention, said Badeaux.

“One of the conditions the employees set out was they didn’t want to report back to the company in any way whatsoever. They were worried about confidentiality,” said Badeaux. His office only goes so far as to alert the peer helpers if someone’s record of absenteeism is notable. Otherwise, it’s up to the peer helper to approach an employee who’s showing signs of mental illness or vice-versa.

The concern about confidentiality is so acute that even though the company has a room for peer helpers to use to talk with employees, that room is seldom used, said Badeaux. “Employees are worried that just walking into that room would be a sign that you’ve got a mental illness. So people go to the cafeteria or they talk during their lunch break.”

Although he deliberately avoids finding out about the peer helper program, he has seen its effectiveness in short-term disability numbers. In January, there were only three people on short-term disability leave due to mental illness.

Nationally, awareness about mental health is woefully lacking, said Suzanne Dubois, executive director of the Mental Illness Foundation, a Montreal-based non-profit organization.

To tackle the level of ignorance about the illness, the foundation has been holding informational sessions at workplaces. These sessions are designed to help workers spot the problem in themselves, their colleagues, as well as their subordinates. It was the Mental Illness Foundation where OI Canada’s peer helpers were trained.

“At the workplace, the signs of mental illness may be a sudden change in personality or behaviour. A person who usually goes for lunch may start eating at the desk or find excuses not to eat with others anymore,” said Dubois.

“There may be a drastic change in the level of work as well. The person may start missing deadlines or working longer hours but with no increase in productivity.”

If managers and supervisors who encounter such symptoms fail to consider mental illness as a possibility, they run the risk of instituting disciplinary actions, which are unhelpful in such circumstances, said Dubois.

There’s such a general level of ignorance out there that the information sessions can sometimes have dramatic results, as Dubois has witnessed.

“We did a presentation one morning at this one factory, and after our presentation, two people right away went to the human resource department. They said, ‘That sounds like me. I haven’t been feeling well.’ And they received treatment.”

And in hindsight, the people who worked with these two realized they were seeing the signs all along, said Dubois. “They said, ‘It’s true, that person has been coming in late, and she didn’t seemed to be interacting with her friends and colleagues anymore.’”

Managers and supervisors have to be reminded to consider mental illness as a possibility when faced with unsatisfactory performance by a worker, said Dubois.

With one out of 10 Canadians reporting a mental disorder (see sidebar), “you’re going to have mentally ill people in your workforce.” Although the tendency among managers can often be to look away, Dubois stressed that they have a “social responsibility” as well as a managerial duty to intervene.

“If your worker breaks a leg, you wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call 911. It should be the same with mental illness, which is after all an illness. You have to look for help. Not doing anything about it, which a lot of people do, isn’t a solution. The longer one waits, the more advanced the illness becomes, and the longer the absences from work will be,” said Dubois.

One of the biggest problems with mental illness is it too often goes undiagnosed, and people affected by it go untreated for too long. Surveys have found that people with mental illness often go to the family physician, but these primary care doctors often miss the diagnosis.

To address that problem, a company has developed a diagnostic and treatment tool for the workplace. Olga Cwiek, vice-chair of Toronto-based Mensante, said the tool is a Web-based diagnostic test that resides on a company’s intranet.

The tool, called Feeling Better Now, builds upon the questionnaires doctors use to make a mental illness diagnosis. It also details a treatment plan. A person who suspects he’s affected by a mental illness can do the intranet test, then print out the treatment plan to present to his primary care doctor. The tool also follows up every three weeks with a series of questions and a note of encouragement for the patient to continue taking prescribed medication.

“A big reason for the low detection rate is the six- to eight-month waiting list to see a psychiatrist. So 95 per cent of the people go to their family doctor. And 80 per cent of the time, they’re improperly diagnosed. Or they’re put on a wrong treatment or they don’t follow the treatment properly.”

Two major Canadian employers — a financial institution and a manufacturer — have requested the tool, which will be ready for implementation in about three months, said Cwiek. She expects more companies to roll out initiatives to deal with mental health.

“Many companies are starting to understand that it’s good business. When they look at the research and see some of the numbers involved, they understand that it’s good for the bottom line.”

Mental illness in numbers

Statistics Canada recently surveyed 37,000 Canadians on their experiences with several specific psychiatric diagnoses, including:

•mood disorders — depression and mania;

•anxiety disorders — panic, agoraphobia, social anxiety; and

•substance dependence — alcohol and illicit drugs.

The survey found:

•4.5 per cent have experienced depression in the previous 12 months (comparable with five per cent for diabetes or heart disease);

•4.7 per cent have experienced anxiety disorder;

•10.4 per cent report at least one of the disorders above;

•people between 15 and 24 are the biggest group at risk of depression (18 per cent) and substance dependence (eight per cent);

•only 32 per cent of affected people saw a health professional (usually a general practitioner);

•21 per cent of affected people who felt they needed help did not get it;

•more than five per cent of affected people reported at least one day of disability in the 14 days prior to the interview; and

•more than 20 per cent of affected people had to stay in bed or cut down on activities due to physical cause (compared to 12 per cent of those who don’t have the surveyed disorders).

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Physical disability going down, mental disability going up

Health and safety strategies designed to curb psychological issues, as well as physical issues, need to be holistic

By Uyen Vu

At first glance, the disability picture may appear like a paradox. Workers’ compensations costs have been on the decline, and long- and short-term disabilities have held steady over the past five years.

Yet, according to a Watson Wyatt survey of 180 Canadian businesses, nearly half believe direct disability program costs have increased since 1999. Why are rising disability costs a concern to some employers?

“Our bet is costs that are not related to mental and nervous conditions are indeed coming down, but mental and nervous disabilities are butting up against that, and we’re close to seeing a cross-over” where the non-physical disabilities will indeed drive up long- and short-term disability costs, said Joseph Ricciutti, national practice director of group and health-care practice at Watson Wyatt.

The clearest indications of this rise, said Ricciutti, are Statistics Canada figures that show average absenteeism increasing from eight to nine days from 2000 to 2002. If that increase isn’t reflected in the long- and short-term disability figures collected by Watson Wyatt — figures which have plateaued — it means the increase is hidden in sick days and personal days, which weren’t tracked in the Watson Wyatt survey, said Ricciutti.

“People are simply getting off the treadmill. They’re saying things like, ‘I need a day off,’ or ‘Time out,’ or ‘Can’t handle it,’” said Ricciutti. People who can’t afford to take days off to decompress, he added, still contribute to the loss of productivity by showing up at work with diminished energy and morale.

Controlling costs against this background requires a different approach, said Ricciutti. A health and safety strategy designed to curb psychological issues, as well as physical issues, needs to be holistic.

It would examine the sources of stress — the demands of the job, the effort required — the conditions that would mitigate the stressors — the level of control and reward employees have — as well as the policies and values in place.

Intervention approaches need to be different for mental illness, said Ricciutti. Under a medical model, a doctor doing intake typically goes through a checklist to determine the veracity of a worker’s claim. “Did you fall? Did you slip? Did you pick up something the wrong way? And if the answers are all ‘No,’ then the conclusion is something that looks like the rebuff: ‘It must be in your head.’”

That rebuff doesn’t go far when it comes to psychological conditions. Yes, that pain is in the worker’s head, but it’s real, said Ricciutti.

“What you need is a behavioural model. If the medical model is adversarial and starts from the premise that the claim is a fraud, the behavioural model needs more sensitivity, more pull, more collaboration. It begins with the claim manager saying, ‘I’m going to accept this claim as honest, and I will focus on what the person can do.’”

Moving to this model would require initiative on the part of insurance plan sponsors, noted Ricciutti. But pointing to a recent case at BMO, in which an overworked and burned out manager won $15,000 in damages for mental suffering (see, click on Advanced Search and enter article #2942), Ricciutti said that the current claims adjudication model is too adversarial and needs to change.

At Weyerhaeuser, the international timber-products company that employs about 10,000 people in Canada, a prompt response to disability, coupled with an emphasis on prevention, helped earn the company an award from the National Institute of Disability Management and Research.

Doug Bowersock, Weyerhaeuser’s British Columbia HR manager, said the company’s approach to psychological conditions isn’t different from that used for physical conditions like back pain. The key is to make early contact with the worker on leave and to be prepared to take whatever steps necessary to modify the work for the employee upon return.

“We’re driven by the principle that the longer workers stay away from work, the more difficult it is for them to return to work,” Bowersock.

Spreading this belief through the levels of management and across the different units in Canada, said Bowersock, means “taking the time to talk to people about the impact of someone off on workers’ compensation or short- or long-term disability — both the personal impact and the impact to the business.”

And the company strives to have a return-to-work co-ordinator at every unit. About nine in 10 units have appointed a co-ordinator, said Bowersock, adding that’s one area the company has to improve.

“The real key is having someone really committed to the process and who has the time to do an adequate job of it,” said Bowersock, of the co-ordinator’s role.

When someone goes off on a sick leave, the co-ordinator has to make contact with that person in the first one or two days. “Very early contact with the employee is important. Of course, sometimes you have to acknowledge the trauma of the injury so we’re not knocking on someone’s hospital door.”

Another critical element is making sure modified work arrangements are meaningful. Initiative and creative thinking come in handy at this stage, he said, pointing to an example where a lumber grader developed a pain in his right thumb, associated with handling a crayon designed for the job.

“He was given on-site physiotherapy and a brace, but the brace was cumbersome and he couldn’t do his job. So someone came up with a design for the crayon holder, which he could use with less stress on his thumb. So that’s an example of someone who, in a different mindset, could have lost a lot of time at work.”

When it comes to dealing with psychological conditions, similar creativity will be needed to deal with the challenges particular to mental-health-related problems, said Bowersock.

Stress-related absences tripled

Concern about mental health disability claims is not likely going to diminish in the near future. The fact that mental health claims are increasing is a reflection of the changing demands of life and the workplace.

Mental health statistics reveal a startling picture:

•1.4 million working Canadians suffer from depression, one of the most common mental disorders.

•Mental disorders represent the most costly medical conditions in Canada, estimated at a minimum of $14 billion dollars a year.

•Between 50 per cent and 66 per cent of this cost relates to the workplace, including lowered productivity, replacement costs and disability payments.

•From 1995 to 1998, the number of employees who missed work due to stress more than tripled, from six per cent to 19 per cent.

Sources: Thomas Stephens and Natacha Joubert; The Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health; and Wendy D. Lynch.

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Drain the workplace stress swamp

Targeting stress reduces disability, poor work performance and turnover

By Richard Earle

When organizations are concerned about stress, what they’re really worried about are three things. As a human resource vice-president put it: “First, the stress leaves just keep on coming. Second, the work is not getting done — at least, not the way it should. And two of our best people just got fed up and flat out resigned.”

In short, targetting stress is about targeting: disabilities, daily or discretionary work performance, and turnover.

At the Canadian Institute of Stress, this familiar trio is called “D.D.T.” It relates to the toxicity that has gradually seeped through many workplaces in the past decade — a byproduct of too much stress plus too little satisfaction that persist for too long.

Can courses on stress management or work-life balance drain the swamp? Not a chance. One front-line airline manager put it this way: “Maybe learning to control your heart rate, or visualizing your way through the next disaster appeals to some. To me it’s a joke. Sure, a lot (of employees) attend the workshops. They clearly want something. But, it’s not showing up on the job.”

Sensing that these solutions don’t work, many employers are giving up on “the stress problem.” Findings in a recent Canada-wide survey by Buffett Taylor show that while 64 per cent of employers see stress as their top workforce threat, only half of those (32 per cent) are giving priority to solving it.

In the past decade, stress claims have doubled, rising from 25 per cent to more than 54 per cent of total disabilities. But stress, by itself, is not the problem. Research by the Canadian Institute of Stress shows that elevated chronic stress levels increase the risk of stress-based disability by 35 per cent as compared to a normally stressed workforce. That’s bad enough, but when higher stress is accompanied either by decreased “work satisfaction” or by decreased “engagement” amongst employees, the risks of stress disability rise by factors of 110 per cent and 160 per cent, respectively.

Addressing D.D.T. requires a two-pronged approach. First, help the walking wounded, those people already suffering from the effects of workplace toxicity. Second, plug the intake of the D.D.T. pipeline, and the way to do this is to involve employees in identifying, and solving, the causes of stress.

Help the walking wounded help themselves

Between 15 and 20 per cent of employees today qualify as “the walking wounded.” While present on the job, their health, performance and engagement have been eroded by the toxic cocktail. Of these, 30 per cent eventually come forward for help. Unfortunately, due to stigma and related reasons, the remaining 70 per cent suffer and under-perform in silence. They will typically endure D.D.T. for two to five years before they suddenly take early retirement, go on long-term disability, just resign, launch an employment standards case, or get fired.

Since most managers understandably prefer to avoid dealing with employees’ personal or coping issues, it’s up to organizations to “market” self-management training, coaching or the EAP more successfully.

By introducing lunch-and-learns and using the power of the Internet to confidentially send personalized “pull marketing” messages to each employee, organizations can dramatically increase the likelihood of the walking wounded seeking help. The key is to help each of the walking wounded to recognize and then connect their specific “pain” to action steps which are personalized, simple and confidential.

Roll back workplace toxicity

Having taken action to reduce the walking wounded numbers, organizations have to take steps to prevent other employees from entering the D.D.T. pipeline.

Whether employees think of their workplace as “a good place to work” or “a sweatshop” depends more on a work team’s culture and less on “the facts.”

So, while reducing D.D.T. risks in a team is, about maintaining good working conditions, it is even more based on fostering a team mindset and culture in which the core belief is, “This place isn’t perfect but, by and large, it responds well to our needs and feelings about stress and satisfaction in our work.”

Extensive research at the Institute shows employee-driven solutions, built into routine team operations, can be highly effective in creating and then preserving the “good place to work” mindset.

Here’s one of several thousand scenarios where employees identify the cause of stress and then solve it. At the headquarters of a large trust company, customer service reps were asked to log and profile every call in terms of seven call factors. These busy workers were already handling many calls at once. They felt the additional work not only increased stress levels but also drained their satisfaction in giving top notch service. To cope, they started inventing the seven-factor data at the end of the day.

The employees’ proposal: simply to profile only 20 per cent of the calls. The solution gave the trust company truly representative data and fell within the employees’ view of reasonable daily stress.

While previously jaded employees are often initially skeptical, the benefits in their stress and satisfaction levels quickly win them over. Unlike other business process improvement methods, employee-driven problem-solving not only produces significant cost savings, it also explicitly places equal value on employees’ feelings about their work, and their insights on how it should be managed. As an airline reservations agent put it, “Finally, they’re respecting that I know my job and my customers better than they do.”

Richard Earle is managing director of the Canadian Institute of Stress. He may be reached at (416) 236-4218 or at [email protected].

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Employee wins payout from BMO for burnout

Chronic overwork due to understaffing costs bank $15,000 – decision is a landmark, says mental health expert

By David Brown

BMO, recognized on more than one occasion as one of the country’s top employers, must pay $15,000 in damages to an employee for creating unbearable work conditions, according to an Ontario court.

Susanne Zorn-Smith was a hard-working, competent and loyal 21-year employee of BMO, who, in February 2001, suffered complete burnout from constant overwork due to chronic understaffing, said Ontario Superior Court Justice Catherine Aitken, in last month’s decision.

Zorn-Smith refused a return-to-work program in May 2001 because she believed she had been mistreated by the bank and BMO had not made any improvements to the workplace problems that had caused her breakdown. BMO then terminated Zorn-Smith, who took the bank to court for wrongful dismissal.

When she was on disability, her doctor advised against a return to work, though the bank’s medical advisor, without ever seeing Zorn-Smith, determined her condition was not totally disabling and she should return to work part time.

Justice Aitken concluded the termination had been without cause because returning to work for Zorn-Smith would have been “medically disastrous” since there had been no meaningful changes to the work environment that caused her burnout.

Employment law claims involving burnout and stress are rare because it is difficult to prove the employer is responsible for causing the burnout. In this case, the judge had no doubt BMO was to blame. “This callous disregard for the health of an employee was flagrant and outrageous,” she said.

Zorn-Smith’s managers knew she was worn out as a result of the chronic understaffing and that she had requested relief from the workload placed on her. Rather than helping Zorn-Smith, her manager made staffing decisions that compounded her stress.

In part because the bank had acted in bad faith and treated her unfairly, Justice Aitken ruled Zorn-Smith was entitled to a notice period of 16 months. She was also awarded damages of $15,000 for the intentional infliction of mental suffering.

Appeal still possible

BMO is still considering an appeal and would not comment on the Zorn-Smith case, but April Taggart, vice-president of HR, personal and commercial client group, said she is confident the bank has the policies and procedures in place to ensure employees are not being overworked.

“I am very proud of the human resources policies around things like work-life balance and some of our disability policies,” she said.

Annual employee surveys, which can be analyzed down to the branch level, reveal if workload is a problem. If people need to improve coping skills, they can access the company’s employee assistance plan, and all employees also have the option of calling the organization’s HR centre if workload is a concern.

At trial, the bank said Zorn-Smith had the option of appealing her return-to-work program instead of refusing it, but Justice Aitken did not accept this as a defence of her termination. “That was inappropriate. It was the responsibility of the bank to ensure a safe workplace for its employees, a workplace that was not making them ill and unable to work.”

An important case

Though this was a wrongful dismissal case, Dr. Martin Shain, an expert on the effects of workload on employee health of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said it represents an important watershed in evolving workplace health and safety jurisprudence.

“It is just the kind of case I was hoping would come along,” he said.

“There is a new class of hazards out there that will be recognized judicially and quasi-judicially. Whether this case is challenged or not, it has gone far enough that it should be a wake-up call to the HR profession that they need to be monitoring these situations much more carefully,” he said.

“Really it is a warning signal to other companies that, watch it, things are changing out there.”

He also pointed out that while BMO is recognized as one of the top 100 employers in the country and has been enjoying record profits, in some places in the organization people are being worked to the point of mental and physical breakdown. In some organizations there is a big difference between what companies purport to be visions and values and what actually happens within the organization, he added.

It’s likely other judges will have different interpretations of the issues involved, but the decision is an indication of a broader change in attitudes about these things, he said. “There is just so much you can squeeze out of people and still remain within the law.”

Employers pay for poor behaviour during dismissal

Labour lawyer James McDonald, of Toronto-based Sack Goldblatt Mitchell, said while the decision does not break any new ground in employment law, it reinforces a clear trend.

“This is a strong statement by a judge that employers who put employees in situations where they are going to be susceptible to burnout, and the employer is familiar with the employees’ situation, the employer will be held liable.”

The details of the case make it clear the bank was at fault, he said. Some of Zorn-Smith’s co-workers had also left the bank due to exhaustion. “It wasn’t like the bank could say how well they treated everybody and she is just a whiner.”

In awarding extended notice damages, after establishing dismissal was without cause, Aitken applied the 1997 precedent-setting Wallace decision, where the Supreme Court of Canada extended the notice period of an employee after his employer was particularly thoughtless in the way it dismissed him. Lower courts are applying Wallace more and more, he said.

Taggart said managers at BMO who receive complaints about workload are encouraged to report the complaint up the chain of command. “Our policies are pretty clear about that. I think if that kind of an issue is brought to management it would be escalated,” she said. In the past couple of years, the bank has been emphasizing to managers the importance of a good work environment, she added.

She also said the bank’s most recent employee engagement score had improved by 10 per cent from the previous survey, but did not provide statistics about the number of lost-time claims for stress or exhaustion. An employee claim for stress-related disability does not trigger an employer investigation because employee confidentiality prevents management from knowing the details of individual claims, she said.

“Our primary concern is around protecting the confidentiality of the employee,” she said. “A lot of the support we provide to the employee only works if they feel they can engage in those kinds of services with absolute confidentiality.”

Pattern of overwork and understaffing

In delivering her decision, Aitken described in detail a pattern of overwork and understaffing in the nearly two years before Zorn-Smith broke down.

Zorn-Smith took the position of financial services manager in April 1999. The year before, however, she had been told by a superior that she was unqualified for the position because she lacked the education and credentials required for the job and that, with three kids at home, it would be difficult for her to get the qualifications.

The judge found Zorn-Smith was overworked in the months after taking the position. She would work a full day everyday, often without taking a lunch break, and return to the office two or three nights a week, after putting her kids to bed, to work and study for the exams she needed for her position, sometimes past midnight.

During this time, she was also told by her boss, on more than one occasion, that if she did not pass the exams “she would be out of a job.”

Zorn-Smith first went on short-term disability for a few weeks in February, 2000. Her doctor diagnosed work stress and burnout. He said BMO should have provided Zorn-Smith with more time to study for her courses and set job expectations that reasonably reflected her level of training. She was expected to complete the courses to stay in her job, but was not given the time to realistically do it, he said.

Taggart said the bank’s policy is to provide time for mandatory training. “There are two types of training. There is training required for someone to be qualified on the job, and yes, that is built into the schedule.”

When Zorn-Smith went on disability a second time in February 2001, eventually leading to her termination, her doctor again said her burnout was caused by unrealistic expectations and overwork caused by understaffing. Justice Aitken agreed.

“Her energy, initiative and stamina had been drained out of her by too many months of unreasonable work demands,” she said.

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Employers could be on the hook for damages for employees bullied by co-workers

Quebec rules protect workers from psychological harassment

By Louise Bechamp

In June, the right to work in an environment free from psychological harassment becomes a minimum standard of employment in Quebec.

That means employers will be required to take appropriate measures to ensure this right is respected.

This right extends to all employees. From the probationary employee to the senior manager, therefore, anyone can access the newly created recourse by filing a complaint within 90 days of the harassment. Once the complaint is filed, the employee may go back as far in time as necessary to make his case.

The provision dealing with psychological harassment in the workplace was introduced in December 2002, along with other changes to the Labour Standards Act, and comes into force June 1. Although the issue of workplace harassment or abuse is not new and has been dealt with by arbitrators, other statutory tribunals or by the civil courts in a number of circumstances, the provisions of the act are likely to have a substantial impact upon employers and employees alike in Quebec.

Psychological harassment defined

For the purposes of the act, psychological harassment has been defined at section 81.18 as: “…any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee.

“…A single serious incidence of such behaviour that has a lasting harmful effect on an employee may also constitute psychological harassment.”

According to this definition, the key elements that constitute psychological harassment are:

•Vexatious behaviour: The act refers to a conduct that becomes humiliating or abusive for the victim of harassment. Maliciousness or intent to harm are not prerequisites and will not constitute determining factors.

•Repetition: When the unwanted comments, gestures or actions are repeated over time and viewed cumulatively rather than in isolation, the conduct can become vexatious and constitute harassment.

•Hostility or unwanted conduct: Either the conduct may be reasonably characterized as hostile or aggressive towards the employee, or the employee will need to show he has expressed some form of disagreement with the conduct. The refusal or disagreement need not be stated expressly but could be inferred from the circumstances.

•Effect on an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity: As in any other form of harassment, psychological harassment diminishes an individual’s self-esteem or integrity.

•Harmful work environment for the employee: This can refer to an environment where the employee is isolated or excluded, subject to intimidation, excessive control, or excessive stress, etc. A number of situations could be characterized as constituting a harmful work environment.

•An isolated incident: It may also constitute harassment if it is sufficiently serious and if there are lasting harmful effects.

As such, this definition of psychological harassment is wide enough to encompass all types of undesired conduct in the workplace, including abusive exercises of authority. It is also sufficiently wide to include other forms of prohibited harassment (sexual, racial, religious, political, etc.). This may mean that instead of turning to human rights legislation and the available recourses there, employees in Quebec could eventually seek to enforce these rights through the newly created recourse.

It is likely that the standard of review for the alleged conduct will be that of a “reasonable, objective and well-informed person” placed in similar circumstances to that raised by the complainant. At least, this is the view expressed by Robert L. Rivest, chief legal counsel for the Labour Standards Commission in a text he prepared in November, “Les nouvelles normes de protection en cas d’harcèlement psychologique.”

Harassment-free work environment

Section 81.19 of the act provides both for the rights of an employee and for the obligation of the employer as follows:

…Every employee has a right to a work environment free from psychological harassment.

…Employers must take reasonable action to prevent psychological harassment and, whenever they become aware of such behaviour, to put a stop to it.

The right to a harassment-free work environment not only means an employee should not be subjected to harassment from superiors and managers, but he is entitled to work without harassment from his colleagues, clients or third parties he deals with in the course of his employment. The employer thus assumes responsibility for the actions of one employee towards another.

It should also be noted that the provisions of the act dealing with psychological harassment apply to all employees, without exclusion. Therefore, even probationary employees or senior managers can avail themselves of the provisions of the act.

The employer’s duty under the act is two-fold: it must take reasonable steps to prevent psychological harassment and, if such is brought to its attention, to have it stopped. This obligation is consistent with that imposed upon employers in matters of sexual harassment and other forms of discriminatory harassment. It is further consistent with the employer’s general obligation under the Civil Code of Quebec, which provides that an employer is bound “… to take any measures consistent with the nature of the work to protect the health, safety and dignity of the employee.”

To meet this obligation, the first and foremost step that should be taken is to create a policy against psychological harassment. Employers can either introduce such a policy, or amend current policy on sexual and discriminatory harassment to include and incorporate psychological harassment.

As with other policies, the policy against psychological harassment should be expressed in clear and simple terms. It should provide for an internal complaint and investigative procedure, as well as advise that the policy will be enforced through appropriate sanctions. Lastly, in order to ensure effectiveness, the policy should be well-circulated or communicated within the workplace.

Other means of prevention to be considered along with a written policy could include information sessions or training on psychological harassment.


Any employee who believes he has been the victim of psychological harassment may file a complaint in writing with the Labour Standards Commission within 90 days of the last alleged incident of harassment. The complaint may also be filed, with the employee’s consent and on his behalf, by a non-profit organization. Once the complaint is filed in a timely manner, the employee may go as far back in time as necessary to make his case.

Typically, complaints of unfair employment practices covered under the act are referred to a hearing without an inquiry. However, a complaint of psychological harassment shall be promptly investigated by the commission. In its investigation, the commission may request any information or document relevant to its inquiry.

Should the commission conclude that the facts do not support a finding of harassment, or that the complaint is frivolous or made in bad faith, it may refuse to take action. However, this decision is not final and binding. An employee may nonetheless request that his complaint be referred to the Labour Relations Commission — the administrative tribunal charged with the application of the Quebec Labour Code and the adjudication of the various unfair employment practices complaints under the Labour Standards Act — for adjudication.

During the investigative phase, the Labour Standards Commission may, with the parties’ consent, request the appointment of a mediator. If the employment relationship is still active, the employee will be deemed at work during the mediation sessions and therefore entitled to salary.

At the conclusion of the investigation, if no settlement has been reached, the complaint is referred to a hearing before the Labour Relations Commission. The complainant will be entitled to legal representation by the commission’s lawyers.

The hearing will proceed before the Labour Relations Commission in the manner of all other matters it hears, with the same applicable rules of evidence and procedure. However, there is no reverse onus provision, which means that the complainant will bear the burden of proof.

Upon a reading of section 123.15, for the complaint to be allowed, the Labour Relations Commission must make a dual finding that the employee has been the victim of psychological harassment and that the employer has failed to take reasonable preventive action or to have the harassment ceased once it was brought to the employer’s attention.

The remedial powers granted to the Labour Relations Commission are broad. In addition to rendering any decision believed fair and reasonable when taking into account all the circumstances of the matter, the Labour Relations Commission may order:

•the employee be reinstated;

•the employee be paid an indemnity up to the maximum equivalent of lost wages;

•the employer to take reasonable action to put a stop to the harassment;

•the employer to pay punitive and moral damages to the employee;

•the employer to pay the employee an indemnity for loss of employment;

•the employer to pay the costs of psychological support needed by the employee for a period of time as determined by the commission; or

•the employer to modify the disciplinary record of the employee.

In accordance with its general powers, the Labour Relations Commission may also make any interim order it considers appropriate to safeguard the rights of a party.

Because a finding must be made that the employer has failed to meet his obligation under section 81.19 of the act, the means of prevention put into place by the employer can become important factors in the assessment of liability. The adoption of a policy or other means of prevention will not constitute a bar to a complaint but could weigh heavily in the outcome.

Employment injury

If as a result of psychological harassment, the employee suffers from an employment injury as determined under the Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases Act, the Labour Relations Commission is no longer entitled to order payment for lost wages, payment of moral or punitive damages nor payment for psychological support. All other remedies remain applicable.

Unionized employees

By virtue of section 81.20 of the act, the provisions of sections 81.18 (definition), 81.19 (rights and obligations), 123.7 (90 day time limit), 123.15 (remedial powers) and 123.16 (employment injury) will be deemed incorporated into every collective agreement with the necessary modifications.

Thus, the exclusive recourse of the employee (save and except an employment injury) will be under the collective agreement, with an amended 90-day time limit to file the grievance. The remedial powers of the arbitrator will be same as that of the Labour Relations Commission.

However, the parties may, at any time before the matter is taken under advisement, jointly request mediation.

Coming into force

As already stated, these provisions of the Labour Standards Act will come into force on June 1, 2004, including the recourse provisions. Theoretically, complaints could be filed June 1, alleging an incident occurred 90 days previously. Further, once the complaint is timely filed, the employee can go as far back in time as necessary to support his allegations. By this very fact, employers would be well served to immediately put into place reasonable preventive measures to ensure a harassment-free work environment.

Louise Béchamp is a lawyer specializing in labour law at the Montreal office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin. She may be contacted at [email protected] or (514) 397-7573.

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