Sask. Workers' Comp. decision attributing suicide to workplace could lead to more claims: prof

A decision by the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board to attribute the suicide death of a grader operator to his employer is being called a “shift” in attitudes to mental health in the workplace.

WCB attributed man's mental health issues, death to employment with RM of Parkdale

Brenda Duhaime with her husband, Robert, pictured at their 35th wedding anniversary, a little over a year before Robert took his own life in August 2017. (Brenda Duhaime)

A decision by the Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board to attribute the suicide death of a grader operator to his employer is being called a "shift" in attitudes to mental health in the workplace.

Robert Duhaime worked for the Rural Municipality of Parkdale in Glaslyn, Sask., until his death on Aug. 31, 2017.

In a letter to his widow, Brenda Duhaime, on Jan. 19, the WCB said there is sufficient information to attribute his mental health issues and subsequent death to his employment.

"Mr. Duhaime had a history of prior mental health issues that pre-existed his work injury," the letter reads.

"Mr Duhaime's most recent mental health issues will be considered first as an aggravation of his pre-existing condition and then an acceleration that led to his taking his life."

Brenda will receive an initial payment of $13,000. The WCB originally agreed to pay relief for that amount to the RM of Parkdale but documents provided to CBC News show it has since reversed that decision.  

Scott Walsworth, an associate professor of human resources at the University of Saskatchewan, said the decision is a "departure" from the norm.

"It opens the doors and it places a lot of responsibility on the employers for creating a healthy space at work in terms of mental health," said Walsworth.

"I think that probably reflects a change in society as well, that this is something we take seriously and this is something that employers have to ensure — just like they have to ensure employees aren't exposed to chemicals or those kinds of things."

The WCB has accepted claims related to suicides at work. Sadly, it is not unprecedented.- Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board

The reeve of the RM, Daniel Hicks, disagrees with the WCB's finding and said staff and councillors were not at fault.

Walsworth thinks it is fair to attribute a person's mental health issues to their employment.

"With mental health, I'm sure the employer wouldn't be responsible for 100 per cent but the [WCB] must have felt that the conditions in the workplace were well above what would reasonably be expected at work," said Walsworth in reference to Duhaime's claim.

Employee, employer responsibilities

Walsworth said employers should make it clear to their employees that they should disclose any pre-existing conditions. 

Walsworth said the employer has a responsibility to take reports of bullying and harassment more seriously than providing the employee with forms to make a claim.

Managing the backlash and possible resentment from other employees — who may not know the reason why certain accommodations have been made to support an individual — is also important, he said.

Decision not the 1st of its kind

The WCB said the claim is not the first of its kind.  

"The WCB has accepted claims related to suicides at work. Sadly, it is not unprecedented," the WCB said in a written response to questions.  

"The legislation gives benefit of doubt to the worker. Current guidelines do cover mental health-related claims."

Workplace education needed: mental health worker 

Donna Bowyer, who works in training and education at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Saskatchewan, hopes the Duhaime finding makes a "big change."

She said people with mental health conditions face numerous challenges in the workplace, adding that some find they have been demoted when they return to work after being on mental health leave.

"We get calls at our office on a regular basis of people who have gone off on mental health leave but aren't treated the same as somebody who goes off on physical health leave," said Bowyer.

In contrast, she said some employers consider mental leave to be more like a "holiday" and expect employees to work even harder when they return.

Bowyer said managers and business owners need to educate themselves so they are equipped to make their workplace conducive to good mental health.

She has seen work environments transformed by the decision to educate their management and workforce about mental health.

"If somebody is being bullied or they are being harassed or they are being made a scapegoat in a workplace, which we see happen often, it doesn't matter whether you have a mental health issue or not, it's going to impact your mental health," said Bowyer.  

For people with mental health issues who feel their workplace is not taking their concerns seriously, Bowyer suggested speaking to a union representative or bringing in an advocate like CMHA to meet with their employer.

If you need help

Mental health resources are available through the HealthLine at 811.

The federal government set up a toll-free number for First Nations and Inuit people who are experiencing mental health issues: 1-855-242-3310. 

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Here are some of the warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.