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Occupational health and safety: Bell’s “Let’s Talk Day” puts the spotlight on mental health

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This past Wednesday, January 28, was Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk Day”, an annual event in which the communications giant makes additional donations (beyond its other contributions throughout the year) to Canadian mental health programs based on the number of text messages, wireless and long distance calls, and certain tweets and Facebook shares transmitted by its customers.

“Let’s Talk Day” attracted a great deal of media attention, and deservedly so. This year, it yielded a donation from Bell in excess of $6 million, and – just as importantly – it helped to raise awareness of mental health issues across the country.

One of the four stated “pillars” of Bell Canada’s broader Let’s Talk initiative (of which “Let’s Talk Day” is only a part) is “workplace health.” In that regard, Bell’s website sets out the following statistics, which are significant to all Canadian employers:

  • “Mental health is the leading cause of workplace disability in Canada and represents 15% of Canada’s burden of disease”
  • There are approximately “500,000 Canadians missing work each day because of a mental illness”, such that “the impact in lost labour-market participation was an estimated $20.7 billion in 2012 alone.”

There is very good reason for employers to heed the call to “Let’s Talk”, and to address workplace mental health issues head-on. And many are doing so.

Employers are becoming ever-more mindful of not only their obligations to accommodate mental health issues (i.e. pursuant to human rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “disability”), but also of the role that they have in prevention. Indeed, we’ve seen the promotion and protection of mental wellness in Ontario workplaces emerge as an increasingly important mandate over the past few years – for example:

  • In 2010, the Bill 168 amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act established that workplace violence and harassment represent occupational health and safety issues.
  • In 2013, the Canadian Standards Association issued a non-binding Standard on Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace (the “CSA Standard”), which, among other things, defines “psychological health” and “psychologically healthy and safe workplace” in very broad terms, and contemplates employers considering the matters of “psychological job demands” and “work/ life balance”.
  • In an April 2014 ruling (Decision No. 2157/09), the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal determined that the current statutory limitations on workers’ entitlement to benefits for traumatic mental stress are unconstitutional. Although the Tribunal’s decision does not represent a legally binding precedent (inasmuch as neither the Tribunal nor the WSIB are bound by legal precedent), it has certainly opened the door to further discussion – and, quite possibly, to legislative amendments – regarding traumatic mental stress claims.
  • In the fall of 2014, the Ministry of Labour issued a report from its “Roundtable on Traumatic Mental Stress.”
    • The Ministry website describes the mandate and process of the Roundtable as follows: “Launched by the Ontario government in 2012 to help promote healthier, more productive workplaces. It brought together representatives from the police, nursing, fire services, emergency medical services and transit services to discuss how to promote awareness and share best practices across sectors on work-related traumatic mental stress, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder.”
    • The Report contemplates a need for legislative amendments, and refers to the possibility of the CSA Standard being adopted as an enforceable guideline.
    • The Report also sets out a number of recommended follow-up actions, including:
      • Ensuring traumatic mental stress is a priority for the Ministry of Labour’s Chief Prevention Officer; and
      • Working with ministries across governments to provide mental health supports in high-risk workplaces.

The upshot of all of these initiatives is clear: traumatic mental stress and psychological health and safety are matters that demand increased awareness and increased engagement by Ontario employers. I think it no exaggeration to say that these issues headline the next frontier in occupational health and safety compliance; and there will no doubt be further developments between now and “Let’s Talk Day” 2016.

Jason Beeho

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Jason Beeho is a highly focused problem-solver; and in every situation, he is committed to understanding his clients’ goals and priorities, providing practical advice, and achieving optimal results.