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Russell Wangersky: Too little, too late

Workplace stress can accumulate over time.
Workplace stress can accumulate over time.

It was a dry little Thursday news release, but an important one.

WorkplaceNL is going to review its policy on workplace mental stress — and truly, it’s about time the policy was brought into the modern age.

 

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

 

The workplace compensation agency’s policy on mental stress is a short one, barely a page and a half long, with policy No. EN-18.

 

But the crux of it is that only one kind of mental stress is covered.

“Compensation for mental stress is only considered where disability develops as an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of and in the course of employment,” the policy says. “Mental stress that develops gradually over time due to general workplace conditions, or stress that may be the result of an employer’s decision or action relating to the employment of a worker, including a decision to change the work to be performed or the working conditions, to conduct disciplinary or investigative processes, to discipline the employee or to terminate the worker’s employment, do not constitute an injury.”

In the same document, it’s put even more plainly: you’d be covered if you developed a mental stress issue as a result of witnessing a fatality, being a victim of an armed robbery or hostage-taking, being subjected to physical violence or being subjected to death threats where there’s a reason to believe the threats are serious.

WorkplaceNL is going to review its policy on workplace mental stress — and truly, it’s about time the policy was brought into the modern age.

But if the mental stress comes from “an employer’s work related actions,” you’re out of luck.

When you think about that, it’s good to hold mental health issues up against their physical counterparts. (One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a mental health professional was to consider a situation as if my brain was broken, the same way I would consider it if my arm was broken.)

So think about it this way: if you were following the current mental health guidelines and reflecting them against physical injury, Workplace Health would agree to cover you if you lost two fingers in a lathe accident, but would not cover you if long-term, unaddressed physical strain from unresolved issues at your work station caused chronic injury like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Employers would focus on lowering accident risks, but not on long-term injury.

And that’s a foolish distinction.

Another point? Acute workplace mental stress, under the current definition, might not even be connected to your workplace. An armed holdup is not generally considered to be a regular part of your employment as a bank teller, for example. It’s not something you could even expect an employer to be able to prevent.

But a situation where long-time mental stress develops as a result of the direct actions of a manager is certainly something an employer could, and should, take action to control or prevent. It’s certainly a type of mental issue that you’d think workplace health programs would seek to prevent — because they can actually be addressed.

And yes, just like some soft tissue injuries, mental stress coverage will be difficult to prove or disprove, and may be abused. Is it a new nest of worms? Yes.

But, just as with a host of physical injuries, the worker involved will still need a diagnosis from a medical professional — and just because it may be abused is no reason to deny the existence of, and support as a result of, workplace-caused mental stress.

Oh, and a footnote to EN-18 says the policy was developed in June 1999, almost two decades ago, with a single revision in December 2016.

It’s long overdue for change. Because, when it comes to mental health and the workplace, the world has changed, and the policy has been left behind.

 

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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