SUMMARY: Several regions in Canada now cover claims under worker’s compensation for chronic (rather than just traumatic) mental stress and it is likely more may follow. Understanding how chronic mental stress might be defined and how to recognize the hazards and reduce risk can protect both employer and employees.

Understanding Chronic Mental Stress

Chronic mental stress is a recognized hazard that can deplete the individual’s capacity for resilience to stressors. As the stress continues, the individual’s ability to cope erodes, and it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with the normal stresses of life. This can result in emotional or relational problems, depression, anxiety, or performance issues.

Elizabeth Rankin-Horvath is an occupational and psychological health and safety specialist, integration coach, and speaker who served as project manager for the Technical Committee that developed the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. She emphasizes the importance of prevention of what is becoming commonly known as chronic mental stress. She has provided a step-by-step action guide for Preventing and Managing Chronic Mental Stress Claims.

Rankin-Horvath describes chronic mental stress as occurring when an individual is exposed to ongoing stressors without relief and that it doesn’t matter whether all of the stress is work-related.  It is the overall stress load that matters.  Understanding what chronic mental stress is and why it can be so hazardous allows employers to recognize the signs early on and take appropriate action before the stress causes disability.

Rankin-Horvath emphasizes the importance of identifying sources of work-related chronic mental stress. For example:

  • Listen to what employees are saying and how they are saying it.  Are they expressing concerns about their stress load?  Are they upset, angry, irritable, or apathetic?  Are they complaining about burn-out?  Are they chronically fatigued?
  • Has there been a noticeable change in an employee’s attitude or behaviour? 
  • Are there signs of chronic mental stress showing up in recent employee surveys?
  • Is any employee experiencing an unexplained increase in sick time, performance issues or accidents?
  • Is there unresolved conflict between workers?
  • Are there signs or reports of harassment or bullying?

Reducing the Risk

The following questions form part of the Preventing and Managing Chronic Mental Stress  step-by-step process Rankin-Horvath recommends for reducing the risk of chronic mental stress and improving the overall well-being and productivity of your workforce:  

  1. Are there any workers in your organization who may be suffering from chronic stress?
  2. What does workers’ compensation legislation in your jurisdiction say will be accepted as a substantial work-related stressor? 
  3. Are any workers in your organization exposed to a substantial work-related stressor as defined?
  4. What is the most significant step we can take to prevent or reduce the risk of a substantial work-related stressor in our organization?
  5. Who should be involved in determining solutions for substantial workplace stressor(s) that have been identified and how can we involve them without causing more stress?
  6. What do we need to do to ensure that our organization’s disability and claims management program includes all the requirements for effective management of a chronic mental stress claim?
  7. Do our job demands analyses include cognitive and mental requirements?
  8. Have employees been trained on their rights and responsibilities with respect to chronic mental stress claims?

Answering these questions will provide a better understanding of your organization’s risk for chronic mental stress.  Some free resources to assist you in addressing risks are provided below.

You may also want to fill out the Cost of Doing Nothing Worksheet to help senior management consider the return on investment for taking action.

Additional Resources

Chronic Mental Stress
Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in Ontario has introduced coverage for Chronic Mental Stress. They explain why and how claims get paid under this legislation.

National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace
The Standard outlines workplace factors and suggests resources for addressing workplace risks that have the potential to cause harm to psychological health and safety.

Psychological Health and Safety Management System
Guidance for implementing a system for assessing how policies, processes, and interactions in the workplace might impact the psychological health and safety of employees. 

Policy and Prevention
Practical approaches for protecting the psychological health and safety of employees, including effective policies and prevention strategies that eliminate or reduce specific risks such as trauma, addiction, or harassment.