Newly compensable psychological injuries are having a tremendous impact on companies across Alberta. The consequences of these complex claims, particularly in the construction sector, cannot be overstated. Historically speaking, the WCB and judicial system imposed high thresholds for claims of mental injuries sustained in the workplace. It was thought that, given the subjective nature of these illnesses, that determining causation, work-relatedness, and diagnosis were insoluble problems. As such, this claim category was reserved almost exclusively reserved for first responders and a few other occupations deemed very high risk.
But that once-mighty threshold for claim acceptance has since been chopped down to knee height. Given recent changes to legislation, even something like an excessive workload can substantiate a claim for burnout, anxiety, or stress. And unlike say, a sprained ankle, there’s no agreed upon recovery time for mental illness, explaining why psych claims take 2-3 times longer (and hence double or triple the cost) to resolve compared to physical injuries. And considering that psych claims have increased in number by 2700% in recent years, this is anything but a trivial issue. The true story below highlights yet another cause of mental injury that employers ought to consider.
Psych injuries hammer on Construction
The following is a true story. Names have been changed to protect identities.
Fred Fiction, General Manager at Melodrama Construction, was seated in his office working on the morning’s fourth cup of coffee. Deep in thought, he weighed the relative urgency of one hundred unread emails against a mountain of change orders, RFIs, and drawing packages in need of review. With a dozen projects under his care, each bid aggressively, a single misstep could mean the difference between profit and loss, so he had to be on his game.
This day, like every other, was whizzing by at light speed. Lunch came and went, Fred’s stomach running on empty, dousing fires and working miracles late into the evening. This was the life of a construction manager.
The office dimly-lit, Fred noticed that he and the cleaning crew were the only signs of life. Thoughts of a warm meal and cool shower tempted him, but those unread emails weighed heavily. Dutifully he bit the bullet and sent clipped replies to the most urgent while glossing over or deleting the rest. But something caught his eye before emptying the trash folder; an email from Safety entitled, ‘How managers should handle cyberbullying’. Safety guy must be running short on material—he chuckled to himself before promptly deleting the message and making a b-line for the door.
One month later
The week began with a flurry of emails and phone calls from rushed project managers stressed about weather delays and other holdups. As always, the team relied on Fred’s steady hand to calm the troops. Just another day at the office.
Moments later there came a knock at the door. It was the HR manager, her expression dark and gloomy, and she needed a word with him immediately. No stranger to being blindsided, Fred gestured her in and braced for the good news.
He stared in disbelief as she explained the situation: Multiple key staff members stand accused of using the company’s instant-messaging system to intimidate a fellow coworker. The bullying and harassment didn’t stop in the office, but continued online after hours. The bullying had escalated to a point that law enforcement was investigating and terminations were sure to follow. The victim of the ongoing harassment had developed severe PTSD while other workers proximal to the abuse were expected to resign.
His mind spinning, visions of the deleted email ran through his head. Dammit all, how’d I miss this?
Seated alone after HR took her leave, Fred searched for answers. In the stillness of his office, he envisioned the impact on office morale, project timelines, replacing key personnel, and the havoc this would wreak on the company’s TRIF score.
High school never ends
The preceding is an example of workplace harassment, a real-life scenario with serious implications. In this tough market, Alberta contractors take jobs for cashflow, and the pressure to deliver reverberates across the workplace. As managers struggle to navigate these roiling seas, human needs are often neglected, creating a vacuum for toxic group dynamics to emerge.
Unbeknownst to the manager in this story, recent changes to OHS and WCB legislation now require employers to think seriously about workplace abuse, lest they be subject to fines exceeding $500,000. This means performing a risk assessment for violence and harassment in the workplace, following up on it with development of policies, and training staff accordingly.
Cases of depression, anxiety, and burnout caused by heavy workloads, interpersonal conflict, and harassment are surging like never before. Prior to Bill 30’s passage in 2017, legislators, the courts, and the WCB imposed strict criteria on coverage for psych claims; anything less than the most serious incidents of trauma were typically tossed out. Flash forwarding to 2020, the definition of ‘trauma’ has expanded substantially, with coverage now extending to psychological injuries caused by workload pressures or personality clashes.
What can you do as an employer?
- Ensure that harassment and violence are defined as workplace hazards. Per OHS Code, you’re obligated to develop prevention plans.
- Inquire into your employee’s well being. It’s important to respect the worker’s privacy, but the law says you also have a duty to inquire. The tension between your right-to-know versus the worker’s right to privacy isn’t easily reconcilable and requires a soft touch on part of the manager.
- Take complaints seriously. Don’t delay when a complaint arises. Initiate an investigation by gathering information, speaking with witnesses, and establishing a timeline of events.
- Document everything. Courts have concluded that management has a responsibility for employee well-being and have asked what steps the company has taken to help an employee cope with stress. Documenting each step can help answer this question.
- Educate yourself and your direct reports on your company’s policies. Ensure everyone understands the zero tolerance approach to discriminatory words or actions.