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Employers can help workers recover from personal traumatic events

It doesn't have to be work-related for companies to step in and support the mental health of their workers
Toronto Danforth shooting
A police officer looks for evidence under a car while investigating a mass shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto on July 23. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

By Jeffrey Smith

Mental health has become a top issue for Canadian employers. There are multiple reasons for that: Mental health awareness has become top-of-mind for many and the stigma is fading, allowing more people to be upfront about mental health issues and seek help.

Mental illness is also now treated like an illness, and can be considered a disability protected under human rights legislation. A protected disability engages the duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship for employers.

And, of course, employees with mental health issues are probably not going to be as productive if such issues aren’t addressed, not to mention conveying an image of being supportive of employees with problems can help with recruiting efforts.

Mental health problems related to stress arising out of or in the course of employment are more frequently being approved for workers’ compensation benefits as well — another instance of where mental injury is being treated on a similar level to physical illness or injury.

However, if mental health issues arise out of an incident outside of someone’s employment, workers’ compensation benefits aren’t an option. But, again, various jurisdictions have been trying to help out in this regard as well. Personal emergency leave has become a thing in several provinces, which provide employees with days they can take off when needed, regardless of their sick day allotment.

For example, employees in Ontario are entitled to take up to 10 days of job-protected leave in the event of “personal illness, injury, or medical emergency,” the same to a relative, or an emergency matter — with the first two days to be paid if the employee has been with the employer for longer than one week.

When traumatic events happen outside of an employee’s work, it’s good for employers to be aware of such leave entitlements and the importance of ensuring their employees are supported. Unfortunately, it seems such events are becoming more commonplace — whether that is the case or not — and this week’s mass shooting in the always-busy Greektown area of Toronto is a reminder that a lot of people can be affected by such events.

Like the Toronto van attack three months earlier, not only several people were injured, but scores of other people were part of the event and likely have been seriously affected. The news reports give us numbers on the number of people killed or physical injured, but not the even bigger number of people who are likely mentally and emotionally injured from these traumatic events. And most of these people likely have jobs to go to. What might their state of mind be if they go to work after experiencing something like this?

This is where employers can do their part to help and indeed have some legal obligations. An employee suffering from mental trauma after being involved in a tragedy — whether a mass attack or a smaller incident — may develop a mental disability that needs to be accommodated through things like flexible hours, temporary leave or help from an employee assistance program. And such mental trauma is likely to qualify for personal emergency leave where available, should the employee believe she needs it.

Tragic events like this week’s mass shooting and April’s van attack in Toronto are tough to deal with for the communities in which they take place and their effects go beyond the reported physical injuries. Employers must not forget that they play an important role in helping the affected recover from the trauma, and indeed could have a legal as well as moral obligation to do so.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey Smith
Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Safety Reporter and Canadian Employment Law Today, sister publications of COS.
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