A growing crowd

Stressed workers are commonplace, so employers should be prepared for the impact

A growing crowd

Feeling stressed at work? If you are, you’re not alone.

This week, Canadian HR Reporter reported on a study that found more than one in five employed Canadians feel stress on the job from high or very high levels of work-related problems. Perhaps not surprising to many, heavy workload was the most common issue blamed by study respondents.

Also perhaps not surprisingly, employees in the health-care and social assistance sectors generally feel the most stress, along with public administration and professional, scientific and technical services workers.

There have been plenty of other studies in recent years demonstrating one key fact – employees are stressed and it seems to be getting worse. But when an employee’s stress gets really bad, what is the employer supposed to do?

In the past decade or so, the effects of mental stress on employees have been getting more attention, to the point where employees are taking medical leave due to mental health conditions and such conditions are being increasingly recognized for workers’ compensation benefits.

In 2014, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal found that the traditional limitation of eligibility for mental stress claims to “traumatic mental stress” – stemming from a sudden and unexpected traumatic event, similar to the requirement for physical injuries - was unconstitutional. This meant that chronic stress that develops more gradually from workplace conditions could lead to workers’ compensation claims, at least in Ontario, although some other jurisdictions have had similar developments.

Even if an employee suffering from severe mental stress at work doesn’t make a workers’ compensation claim, they have other avenues to pursue that employers should be ready for. It’s now common for employees to get doctor’s notes or other medical information indicating diagnoses of mental health conditions and request accommodation. As with any request for accommodation due to a mental or physical condition that may be a disability, the employer has a duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship.

Accommodation involves ensuring there is sufficient information on the employee’s limitations and how long they are expected to last – or their expected return to work if requesting a medical leave – followed by reasonable examinations of possible accommodation solutions, whether it be modified duties or a new role altogether. Of course, the limit is undue hardship for the employer, so employers are generally not obligated to create a new position or do anything that would negatively impact its operations.

But when accommodating a mental health issue, the situation may be more sensitive. Patience and understanding can be important, as while the employee should be involved in the accommodation process, poor mental health can be an obstacle to that. If the process gets bogged down and the employer gets frustrated, caution should still be exercised – it’s not fun to get hit with a disability discrimination lawsuit.

For example, an Ontario court awarded a worker more than $35,000 in constructive dismissal damages after she went on stress leave and was told that she had been replaced. When she returned to work, her manager told her he didn’t have any room for her and she was given menial duties for three days at reduced pay.

A proactive approach can help an employer avoid such a decision, as happened with a BC employer. A worker went on a two-month stress leave, saying that she had mental health issues. When she returned, there were performance issues, so the employer followed up with her on several occasions and asked if she had any medical conditions or disabilities that required accommodation. Each time, the worker denied having any mental health issues. Ultimately, the employer terminated the worker for performance and behaviour issues and the BC Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the complaint. Since the worker continued to deny any mental health issues and didn’t request accommodation, the dismissal couldn’t be related to any mental disability, the tribunal said.

Stress at work can be a problem for employees that can affect their health and productivity. If it gets to the point where an employee has to adjust their role or take a medical leave, employers should be ready to address the situation – it’s a problem that’s becoming more common. Like stressed employees themselves, employers who have stressed employees are not alone.

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