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Managing workers' health in a recession

At this point in time, businesses across North America are facing the following:

• Greater demand for increased efficiencies

• Greater demand for cost containment

• Limited growth opportunities

• Restructuring and/or redeployment of human resources, including the need for greater productivity and efficiency from workers

• Worker fears with job security

• Increased real and perceived physical and psychological stressors arising from the workplace

Employers in Ontario are also facing:

• Increased statutory compliance activity in the area of OHSA compliance with an emphasis on ergonomics

• Increases in both WSIB claims frequencies and claims costs

• Increased requirements through Human Rights in Ontario to accommodate employees

• Greater use of EAP and prescription drug use secondary to increased perceived levels of “distress” in the workplace

Since 2008 many businesses in Canada, and in particular Ontario, commenced the process of restructuring through layoffs, terminations and closures of businesses and business units, in response to pending and current business conditions. The trickle down impact of these changes at a human resources and operational level has and will continue to include:

• Increased number of workplace grievances

• Increased number of human rights liabilities, particularly in the area of disability and older workers

• Greater number and severity of WSIB claims

• Increase in short-term disability claims for stress-related illnesses

• Increased number of short absences from the workplace due to illness and use of mental health days


During times like this, we recommend the following steps to our clients in order to ensure their organization is able to maximize efficiencies and productivity, prevent compensation and short-term disability claims, and limit liabilities such as human rights complaints and union-related grievances.

1. Before laying off and redeploying employees, make sure the remaining workload – both physical and mental – for the remaining employees is within safe guidelines to prevent human error, accidents and employee burnout. This assessment can be made using the science of ergonomics, specifically by measuring the job demands of each task and comparing this to appropriate standards and human work capacities.

2. Ensure all employees are provided with the right tools, equipment, furniture and technology to maximize efficiencies, particularly where employees undertake more job demands.

3. Before layoffs and redeployment of employees occur, determine the impact on workers who are on modified work or permanent alternate work as it relates to workloads and to Human Rights’ Duty to Accommodate requirements.

4. Review EAP use, prescription drug use, health benefit usage trends, health and wellness resources and outplacement services use in your workplace from 2007 to current. This will ensure employees are accessing appropriate resources at the right time in order to prevent short-term illnesses and injury, which can lead to short-term disability and WCB-related claims.

5. Alert supervisors and managers to the issues that occur with employees who feel less secure about their jobs or about workloads so they may take quick action to manage these issues.

6. Take steps to heighten supervisor’s and manager’s knowledge of the duty to accommodate employees with disabilities, particularly those with mental health disabilities that can impact workplace behaviours, performance and attendance.

Recession blues

The environment confronting employers in 2009 and 2010 will impact the health, productivity and efficiencies of your employees and the workplace organization as a whole. Recognizing these issues early on and pursing the correct preventive and defensive strategies can assist your organization in protecting your business through these times.

The second annual Workplace Blues Survey by Everest College found that 23 per cent of respondents are fearful about losing their jobs. Most (42 per cent) blame the economy for giving them the biggest case of the blues, while 24 per cent blame their jobs.

The survey of 619 working adults found more respondents are unhappy on the job compared to last year, with 71 per cent saying they suffer at least occasional bouts of work-induced blues, up from 63 per cent last year.

HR professionals, managers and OHS managers should ensure that major internal organizational shifts occur with little or no impact on the remaining workforce.

If you are interested in learning more about the role ergonomics and disability prevention plays in the workplace during recessionary times, I will be speaking about this in a series of workshops being held at the B.C. Safety Council’s training facilities in May and September 2009. For more information visit or

Jane E. Sleeth is managing director at Optimal Performance Inc. a national ergonomic and disability prevention firm established in 1991. Jane can be reached for feedback and questions at

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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