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Power struggle: Tribunal denies electrician’s appeal for stress-related WCB benefits

by HR Law Canada

A 59-year-old electrician’s appeal for benefits related to chronic mental stress has been denied by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT),

The Tribunal upheld a previous decision by the Appeals Resolution Officer (ARO) from April 2021. It found that the worker’s experiences did not meet the criteria for benefits under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s (WSIB) policy for Chronic Mental Stress (CMS).

Toxic work environment

The worker, who began his employment with the accident employer in 1997, claimed that a toxic work environment created by his immediate supervisor led to his mental stress injury (MSI). The worker described a series of upsetting texts and emails from the supervisor in early January 2019 as the tipping point, after which he did not return to work following a scheduled vacation.

Despite the worker’s allegations of harassment and a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) by a psychologist in May 2019, the Tribunal found that the incidents described did not constitute workplace harassment under the WSIB’s CMS policy.

The policy defines workplace harassment as vexatious conduct against a worker that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.

Interpersonal conflicts, not work stress

The Tribunal’s decision emphasized that many of the incidents described by the worker were more consistent with interpersonal conflicts, which are considered typical features of normal employment and not substantial work-related stressors unless they amount to harassment.

The ruling also noted that the supervisor believed he was friends with the worker and that the worker did not express his discomfort with the supervisor’s behavior until January 2019.

The worker’s representative highlighted the supervisor’s admission of inappropriate behavior and the findings of a third-party investigation by the employer, which concluded that the supervisor’s conduct amounted to harassment under the employer’s policy.

However, the Tribunal gave less weight to this report, noting differences between the employer’s policy and the WSIB’s CMS policy.

In their analysis, the Tribunal stated, “The actions of the supervisor described by the worker in prior submissions and in testimony do not rise to the level of ‘a substantial work-related stressor’ as required by the Board’s CMS policy.”

The employer argued that the worker’s claims were primarily about interpersonal conflict and that the supervisor’s conduct did not meet the threshold for harassment under the WSIB policy.

Lessons from this ruling

  1. Clarify and Communicate Harassment Policies: Ensure that all employees understand the company’s harassment policies and the distinction between interpersonal conflicts and harassment. Regular training can help prevent misunderstandings.
  2. Document and Address Complaints Promptly: Encourage employees to report issues as they arise and document all complaints thoroughly. Early intervention can mitigate the escalation of conflicts and potential claims.
  3. Supportive Work Environment: Foster a workplace culture that promotes respect and support among employees. Providing resources for conflict resolution and mental health can contribute to a healthier and more productive work environment.

For more information, see Decision No. 1675/23, 2024 ONWSIAT 512 (CanLII).

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