Are Mental Health Issues Best Managed by Putting People Off the Job?

Recently I was involved in a lively discussion about the provincial government’s new plans to change how first responders suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are managed under Workers’ Compensation (WCB). Everyone in the room had a working knowledge of the current system and it was clear there are still many unanswered questions about how these changes will affect both workers and employers.

Recently, provincial governments have been bringing forward changes to labour laws which provide pathways for people who need assistance following traumatic events. In addition to the PTSD measures, the McNeil government recently passed a law providing unpaid domestic violence leave for employees dealing with abusive partners or family members.

 Clearly, providing help to people managing difficult life situations is important and necessary, however the assumption that time away from the workplace is the best options may be misplaced. Labour groups are continually pushing for this kind of employer support – and make no mistake, the burden of what are essentially social support mechanisms are being placed squarely on employers, not the unions nor the governments bringing forward this kind of legislation.

Both the PTSD and the domestic violence leave provisions shift the responsibility for accommodation off of the social safety net and on to employers who, one way or another, end up shouldering the bill. In the case of the presumptive PTSD legislation, the Workers’ Compensation Board will be given the responsibility for funding the claims being brought forward. It should be noted, Workers Compensation is entirely funded by employer premiums and an increase in the number or length of claims will be reflected through increased costs for the system.

 In the case of domestic violence leave, while employers in Nova Scotia have not been asked to cover these costs directly through paid leave, employers, especially small businesses, must manage unexpected absences either by covering the cost of replacing workers, adding additional hours for remaining staff or reduced productivity.

 While there is no question mental health issues are an important consideration for employers and employees, and dealing with either of the issues noted above should be provided, this trend toward the assumption of separation from the workplace being a net positive is simply not supported by research. In fact quite the opposite.

 People with mental health problem face many barriers to opportunities, not the least of which is social exclusion. For people with mental illness, social exclusion is often the hardest barrier to overcome and often comes with feelings of rejection, shame, and fear. The question this raises is why governments go-to response is to create pathways for people to get off work, rather than helping them remain in their jobs and providing support to help employers to understand and manage these problems more effectively.

For a person suffering from the stress of a traumatic event, whether it is from exposure to the extremes facing first responders or coping with an abusive partner, the workplace can often provide useful structure in their lives. Additionally, separation from the workplace can exacerbate a sense of disconnection and isolation which may lead to the worker spending long periods on a claim or permanently leaving their job.

This is not to say providing employees leave is not a useful option, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. What is worrisome is governments’ increasing tendency to simply look for ways to get people off work. It not only defies the research, it’s counterproductive, expensive, and ironically, in direct contradiction to efforts being made by the Workers Compensation Board.

 In the last couple of years Workers’ Compensation has been focusing more heavily on treatment and return to work programs and for good reason. Once a worker is on claim in Nova Scotia, they stay on claim longer than anywhere else in the country. In fact, Nova Scotia holds the distinction for having Canada’s worst WCB duration of claim record. This has led not only to high premiums for employers but indirectly to Canada’s lowest level of benefits for employees.

 If the Nova Scotia government is going to take action on helping employees deal with the aftermath of trauma, it should be taking action to assist both employers and employees manage these issues, rather than seeking out new ways to separate employees from their jobs.

 Jordi Morgan is the Vice-president, Atlantic for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business

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