Workers in the Yukon and across Canada reporting more mental health injuries

When you think of workplace injuries, the physical ones caused by operating heavy and dangerous machinery might come to mind. But worker’s compensation boards across Canada are seeing increases in invisible injury claims.

'Psychological injury' on the rise in Yukon government employees

The Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board says it accepted more psychological injury claims last year than ever before. (Andrew Robulack/Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board)

When you think of workplace injuries, you might imagine physical ones caused by operating heavy and dangerous machinery.

But worker's compensation boards across Canada are seeing increases in invisible workplace injury claims.

In the Yukon, the amount of submitted "psychological injury" claims nearly doubled from 2016 to 2018 — and last year the Yukon Workers' Compensation Health and Safety Board accepted more than ever before.

These mental health injuries are rising particularly in Yukon's government employers.

Last week the board announced these employers — including the territorial government, First Nations and municipal governments, first responders, health care and education workers — would need to pay higher board fees next year as a result of these injuries and the cost of their claims, which it says are considerably higher than physical injuries. 

This spike in these claims is caused, in part, by an increase in workplace violence and harassment, spokesperson James Price told CBC in an email.

The board's website says the effects of this harassment and violence on people can include minor or serious physical injuries, temporary or permanent physical disability, shock, anxiety and psychological trauma.

The board does not have a formal definition of "psychological injury," but Price said this type of claim is partially determined by a registered psychologist or psychiatrist after an assessment, and noted that post traumatic stress disorder is a common example.

Price said that people are also increasingly in tune with their mental health, leading to more claims.

"As people become more aware of their mental health and risks to it, they are learning to recognize the psychological injuries they are experiencing." 

Increased mental injury claims across Canada

This increase in workplace mental health injury claims isn't just in the Yukon.

In British Columbia, what WorkSafeBC calls "mental disorder claims" have increased in health-care and social services employees, and they are also rising in retail, education and agricultural workers. From 2018 to 2019 these claims rose by 24 per cent, held flat in 2020, and rose again by about 20 per cent so far this year.

In Alberta's workers' compensation board, numbers show a rise in psychological injury claims in government, education, and health workers over the past four years.

Meanwhile Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board numbers show that "mental disorder or syndromes" claims have gone up significantly in the last decade, from 512 claims in 2010 to 1,813 last year.

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut have also seen a rise in psychological injuries at work. The Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission that deals with both territories saw the number of claims go from fewer than 10 in 2015 and 2016 to 28 in 2019 and 19 in 2020. 

The commission is now working on a guide for employers to offer practical advice "on ways to support mental well-being as part of their overall health and safety program and prevent psychological injury at work," said spokesperson Maggie Collins. 

More employees accessing supports

Liz Horvath, the manager for workplace mental health for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which has been conducting regular national mental health polls in partnership with Health Canada throughout the pandemic, said more people are asking for help.

"We're seeing … increases in anxiety and depression, but we're also seeing more resilience from an employee perspective," she said.

Liz Horvath is the manager for workplace mental health for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. 'We're seeing … increases in anxiety and depression, but we're also seeing more resilience from an employee perspective,' she said. (Submitted by Liz Horvath)

The most recent poll shows the amount of Canadians accessing virtual mental health services has risen by 10 per cent in the past two years.

"If there is any potential silver lining with respect to workplace mental health that comes out of the pandemic, it is the fact that more people are paying attention to it," said Horvath.

However, one in five respondents who received care reported finding access difficult.

"We're actually seeing that there's an increase in people who are needing access to treatment, but they're not getting it," said Horvath.

In the Yukon, Price said the increase in virtual mental health services can be a barrier to getting mental health treatment as some people don't have computers or stable internet connections.

Price could not immediately answer how long it took the board on average to connect Yukon workers to psychological care once a claim was filed, as it doesn't formally track this data.

Resources for Yukoners

The Yukon Workers' Compensation Board is working to provide more mental health support and create healthy workplaces, Price said.

The violence and harassment prevention regulation is a new measure, for example, that aims to create positive and collaborative workplaces.

The board also provides online psychological health and safety in the workplace courses from the University of Fredericton to Yukon workers and employers at a 70 per cent reduction from regular tuition. 

Yukon employers can visit here for more information on how they can help prevent workplace injuries and provide a culture of psychological safety.