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Did expanded WSIA coverage for mental stress claims help workers?


Workers compensation claims for workplace mental stress in Ontario used to be limited to very narrow circumstances. A worker could only be compensated by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) for workplace stress in the event of an “acute reaction” to a “sudden and unexpected” event that was “traumatic”, which was a very high bar to meet.

However, in 2014 the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal concluded that the limited coverage for workplace mental stress was unconstitutional. A related court challenge to the legislation brought by Goldblatt Partners resulted in the Ontario government agreeing to amend the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act to remove the unconstitutional provisions, which in theory made it easier for workers to obtain compensation for a broader range of mental stress injuries and illnesses. This change was celebrated as a victory for Ontario workers.

Unfortunately, the early promise of better compensation for mental stress injuries has been overshadowed by the statistics that have since emerged, which have shown that the vast majority of claims for mental stress injuries in Ontario have been denied. This has also been our anecdotal experience, with claims for traumatic stress (caused by an identifiable, “objectively traumatic” event) faring somewhat better than claims for chronic stress (caused by an ongoing substantial work-related stressor, like harassment, or a high degree of routine stress, like a job where the worker has responsibility over matters of life and death).

It’s also difficult, and often impossible, for workers to try to get compensation for workplace mental stress outside of the WSIB process. Workers’ compensation schemes are designed as a “trade-off”: workers give up their right to sue for damages in court to get access to a specialized, streamlined process through the WSIB, in which they don’t have to prove their employer is legally at fault or negligent. In Ontario, labour arbitrators (who hear grievances filed by unionized workers) have also applied this principle to say that they do not have jurisdiction to hear and decide a grievance that alleges a workplace injury or illness that may be compensated by the WSIB. For many workers, that leaves them with a claim to the WSIB as their only avenue of redress.

So on balance, has the effect for workers of the expanded coverage for mental stress at the WSIB been more negative than positive? Workers fought for enhanced access to compensation for mental stress, but in practice, claim acceptance rates are extremely (and unacceptably) low. There remain important exemptions to the available mental stress coverage in the legislation that were never the subject of any Charter challenge. Anecdotally, these exemptions have been heavily relied upon by WSIB, to the point that the existence of compensation for workplace mental stress in Ontario appears illusory. Workers’ compensation hinges on the historic trade off – but in the current circumstances, workers have given up the right to sue without seeing the corresponding promise of compensation. The current state of affairs risks leaving many workers without any meaningful compensation or remedy for claims of mental stress caused by their workplace.


The authors would like to thank our former Ottawa articling student, Simone Truemner-Caron, for her assistance with this blog post.