The rapid growth of mental stress claims poses quite the conundrum for workers’ comp. The question: How does a system designed to insure against discrete physical injury and accidents deal with subtle and invisible psychological injury? Historically, workers’ comp has covered such claims in only the narrowest of circumstances. To prove mental stress was work-related, the employee had to show that it was an acute reaction to a traumatic event that happened at work. One interesting application of this rule is whether a confrontation with a supervisor counts as a “traumatic event.” The following 2 rulings are an excellent illustration of how these cases play out.
CASE 1: SUPERVISOR CONFRONTATION IS A TRAUMATIC EVENT
Situation: A case worker who’s been with a Nova Scotia childrens’ aid society for 9 years starts experiencing occasional anxiety attacks. The case worker’s less than cordial personal relationship with his supervisor does little to improve the situation. Move ahead 5 years when the supervisor calls the case worker in to discuss problems with his recordkeeping practices. The meeting becomes heated and the case worker storms out. Shortly after, his anxiety attacks worsen and he’s ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). He claims the meeting with the supervisor was a traumatic event and files a workers’ comp claim.
Ruling: The Nova Scotia Court of Appeals rules that the case worker is entitled to benefits.
Reasoning: A traumatic event, says the high court, means “something other than the common experiences of the particular worker.” There was evidence that the confrontation with the supervisor was an acute reaction to a traumatic event:
- The meeting was marked by personal attacks and threats of physical violence;
- Although both sides acted badly, the supervisor appeared to have been the instigator; and
- The case worker’s reaction to the meeting was severe and intense. It was right after the meeting that he started having more severe anxiety attacks.
CASE 2: SUPERVISOR CONFRONTATION IS NOT A TRAUMATIC EVENT
Situation: An office employee has worked for a New Brunswick railroad company for 15 years. After being moved to a call center undergoing renovations, she repeatedly complains to her supervisor about the noise and poor lighting. After 7 months, she gets frustrated and goes over the supervisor’s head. When the supervisor finds out, he goes ballistic and treats the employee to a “bombastic rant, punctuated by yelling.” The employee doesn’t return to work. She’s later diagnosed with “major” and “resistant” depression. She says that the supervisor’s abuse was a traumatic event and claims workers’ comp benefits.
Ruling: The New Brunswick Court of Appeal rules that the employee is not entitled to benefits.
Reasoning: The employee’s depression wasn’t an acute reaction to a traumatic event but the culmination of a series of work events. While “unacceptable,” the supervisor’s behaviour wasn’t a traumatic event:
- It wasn’t “outside the range of human experience” in the workplace;
- It was an isolated incident that wouldn’t cause psychological injury to a “reasonable person”; and
- The employee was suffering from depression before, and while the incident with the supervisor might have been the last straw, it wasn’t the sole cause.
[D.W. v. Workplace Health, Safety & Compensation Commission,  N.B.J. No. 282].
POSTSCRIPT: FROM TRAUMATIC TO CHRONIC
Modern medical science has come to recognize that PTSD and other mental injuries develop not in response to a discrete traumatic event but gradually over time in response to continuous and repeated exposure to work-related stressors like being yelled at by a supervisor. Accordingly, workers’ comp boards in many jurisdictions have begun to move away from “traumatic event” requirements to allow for coverage of chronic mental stress that develops gradually.