Stress in the workplace is a growing concern in the current state of the economy, as employees increasingly face conditions of overwork, fatigue, job insecurity, low levels of job satisfaction, and a lack of autonomy.

The Conference Board of Canada reports that depression costs our economy at least $32.3 billion annually. Nearly three million Canadians will experience depression, which most frequently strikes individuals between the ages of 24 and 44, at the peak of their working lives.

The new challenges of workplace stress

Today’s workers find themselves in smaller organizations, with fewer people doing more and feeling much less secure. The epidemic of workplace stress is a result of changing workplace and economic conditions over the past 20 to 30 years. Despite all the evidence that workplace stress is real and a cause for concern, some in the employer community have decided to move to disentitle workers instead of implementing real prevention strategies.

In public, the employer lobby is saying the right things about mental health while on the surface demonstrating support for mental health awareness. Employers participate in Mental Health Awareness Week, provide awards, and develop toolkits, and some have even published resource guides to develop mentally healthy workplaces. At the same time, however, behind the scenes they lobby against and have blocked legislation that would make employment less stressful and more equitable which would decrease and stem the mental health epidemic.

Barriers remain to fair compensation

When it comes to compensating workers for workplace mental stress, the employer lobby has convinced workers’ compensation boards and government policy makers to view the compensation of chronic stress as a floodgate issue. Once the gate is breached, so the argument goes, it will never be closed again, and the resulting flood of claims will bankrupt the system.

If workplace-related chronic mental stress conditions are not being compensated, what incentive is there for an employer to focus on prevention?

While it is true from an evidentiary burden perspective that mental injury from work-related stress is harder to prove, it is surely not beyond the power of workers’ compensation systems, adjudicators, administrative tribunals, and jurists to supply a test on the basis of which legitimate claims would be allowable.

To not do so flies in the face of powerful scientific evidence linking certain work conditions to identifiable, clinical manifestations of stress and strain, evidence that is just as strong as in other areas such as the relationship between airborne particles and respiratory diseases.

If workplace-related chronic mental stress conditions are not being compensated, what incentive is there for an employer to focus on prevention? Essentially, why would an employer spend resources to create psychologically safe workplaces when he or she can achieve a positive claims record by doing the bare minimum while relying on compensation boards to deny claims through their policies?

Visit the Provincial Building & Construction Trades Council of Ontario to continue the conversation on workplace safety.