Mental health and workers' compensation

Ontario joins other provinces in expanding workers' comp for mental health issues

Mental health and workers' compensation
Jeffrey R. Smith

Ever get stressed at work? Most people would probably say yes, at some point they have. Ever missed work because of psychological stress? Not nearly as many would say yes, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that people are having to miss work due to mental health issues, and systems are being put into place to ensure those that do aren’t being unfairly penalized.


Most of us have probably heard the term “mental health day.” It’s commonly used — sometimes half-jokingly — to refer to somebody taking a day off to mentally recharge and relax. Often people use vacations days for this, but sometimes people will use sick days. And why not? Mental health awareness is big these days and can be just as important as physical health.


This concept is starting to apply to the workers’ compensation regime as well. The laws are shifting in several jurisdictions to make it easier for workers to receive benefits when they miss work due to psychological stress as they would for a physical injury. Many jurisdictions now offer eligibility for benefits for workers who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — something which has become particularly important for first responders, who see a lot of things that can have significant psychological effects. In some jurisdictions, first responders don’t have to prove that PTSD is work-related to be eligible for workers’ compensation.

Some jurisdictions have expanded the definition of compensable stress from simply stress caused by a traumatic event to include that caused by a series of non-traumatic events such has multiple instances of harassment or discrimination. In Ontario, a legal action earlier this year challenged that province’s practice of denying benefits for ongoing mental stress, seeking to have the practice declared unconstitutional because it excluded workers with mental health issues from receiving benefits — eligibility for benefits for physical injuries have no such condition.

The legal action helped contribute to new amendments to Ontario’s Workers’ Compensation Act — Bill 127 coming into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 — opening chronic work-related stress up for benefits as well as traumatic stress and bring it alongside similar allowances in other provinces.

Is work-related mental stress worthy of worker’s compensation benefits if it becomes too much for a worker to come to work? Some might argue it’s not — everyone gets stressed at work, right? Different people just handle it differently. However, there are different levels of psychological stress, and it’s become evident certain types of mental health issues can be crippling. Someone who isn’t mentally well can be just as unable to work as someone with an injury. What both types of injured workers need is support — modified duties if they can do some work with restrictions or benefits until they’re well if they can’t work at all.