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Mental Health Conditions and the WSIB

The Ontario WSIB’s policy regarding disability related to mental stress is stated as follows:

“A worker is entitled to benefits for traumatic mental stress that is an acute reaction to a sudden and traumatic event arising out and in the course of employment.
A worker is not entitled to benefits for traumatic mental stress that is the result of an employer’s employment decisions or action1.”

Accordingly, a worker that is reacting to friction with co-workers or supervisors at work and develops a major depressive episode or other mental health problems caused or created by the workplace interaction will not result in entitlement to WSIB benefits. For workplace accidents, mental health problems that are secondary to an injury arising from such an accident or event would be compensable.
In order for mental stress to be compensable in the workers’ compensation arena, there must have been a sudden and unexpected traumatic event, such as a criminal act, harassment, or a horrific accident which may involve an actual threat of death or serious harm to the worker, co-worker or family member. A copy of the Operational Policy is appended to the end of this paper.

While policies may differ from one provincial agency to the other, on the whole, the Ontario WSIB policy is fairly typical of the approach presently being taken by the various workers’ compensation boards.

A review of cases in 2007 dealing with workplace stress provides an example of the current approach at the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal. In Logan v. Nova Scotia (WCAT)2, an employee was wrongfully dismissed and claimed that the trauma of the dismissal constituted an accident entitling her to WCB benefits. The board denied her claim and on an application for judicial review, the Court ruled that wrongful dismissal does not constitute a traumatic event entitling an employee to WCB benefits. They ruled that the drafters of the legislation did not intend to allow recovery for wrongful dismissal and that recovery of compensation for mental stress caused by wrongful dismissal would normally be addressed through Wallace damages.

The Logan decision differs markedly from situations in which a claimant is suffering with significant psychological issues that are secondary to an injury that occurs as a result of an accident in the workplace. There is a separate Operational Policy Manual that specifically deals with “Psychotraumatic Disability”, which is discussed extensively in the recent case cited as Workplace Safety And Insurance Appeals Tribunal Decision No. 1984/06.3

The relevant portions of the Operational Policy Manual are excerpted below:

General Rule

If it is evident that a diagnosis of a psychotraumatic disability/impairment is attributable to a work-related injury or a condition resulting from a work-related injury, entitlement is granted providing the psychotraumatic disability/impairment became manifest within 5 years of the injury, or within 5 years of the last surgical procedure.

Psychotraumatic disability/impairment is considered to be a temporary condition. Only in exceptional circumstances is this type of disability/impairment accepted as a permanent condition.

Psychotraumatic disability/impairment resulting from organic brain damage is assessed as a permanent disability/impairment.

Psychotraumatic Disability Entitlement

Entitlement for psychotraumatic disability may be established when the following
circumstances exist or develop:
  • Organic brain syndrome secondary to Traumatic head injury Toxic chemicals including gases Hypoxic conditions, or Conditions related to decompression sickness
  • As an indirect result of a physical injury Emotional reaction to the accident or injury Severe physical disability, or Reaction to the treatment process
  • The psychotraumatic disability is shown to be related to extended disablement and to non-medical, socio-economic factors, the majority of which can be directly and clearly related to the work related injury.
Other Factors

The following relevant points are evaluated in assessing the extent of psychiatric disability entitlement:

Prior History

In all cases where history of a prior psychiatric condition is shown to exist, the question of allowance on an aggravation basis is considered, having regard for the emotional effect of the occupational occurrence and a condition resulting from the compensable injury.

Unrelated Psychiatric Disability

In some cases, psychiatric disability/impairment may become apparent in an otherwise uneventful case, and enquiry establishes its origins to other factors (such as family crisis), having no relationship whatsoever to the accident.

The key concept in considering whether WSIB is the appropriate forum to address a person suffering disability as a result of depression or other mental health conditions must focus on the underlying cause of the disabling condition. To date, workplace stress on its’ own without a clear “accident”, “event”, or “incident” within the workplace will not be compensable under the WCB legislation in Canada. It is possible that review decisions and appeals will further develop in this area over time, as changing societal norms have certainly broadened WCB entitlement over the years and have caused further policies and procedures to be put in place to respond to changing circumstances in Canadian workplaces.

1 Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Operational Policy, “In the Course of and Arising Out Of…”, Section: Traumatic Mental Stress, 15-02-02.
2 2006 NSCA 88, 50 C.C.E.L. (3d) 155, 780 A.P.R. 147, 246 N.S.R. (2d) 147, 271
D.L.R. (4th) 120
3 2007 ONWSIAT 12 (CanLII)