We turn to the Workers' Compensation Board when we are injured at work. But what can we do when the part of us that’s injured is our mental health?
AUPE’s Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) committee has committed countless hours to its Working Short campaign this year. From a survey in the spring, to several rallies on May Day, to distributing information and stickers to worksites province-wide, the campaign has been a huge undertaking.
“AUPE members in every sector, including government services, health care, and education, are feeling the crunch,” says AUPE Vice-President Bonnie Gostola, who chairs the OH&S committee. “Working short is the issue that affects us all because it touches on something that affects us all: our mental health.”
Mental illness—or psychological injury—can result from any number of things, which surely includes the stressors we are all subjected to at work. And so, given that our brains are arguably the most important part of our bodies, we should be able to access workers' compensation for a brain injured at work just like any other body part injured at work, right?
Anyone who has filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) knows it is never straightforward, and it is no different when filing a claim for a psychological injury. So, what does Alberta’s WCB consider eligible?
Some criteria include brain damage and extreme emotional reactions to work-related treatment or physical injury. Just like other eligible injuries, the psychological injury must be a result of an employment hazard during employment duties.
That may sound reasonable, but consider this: some of the main causes of impaired mental health—such as massive job cuts and the short staffing and crushing workloads that result—are not considered workplace hazards. "Timeline pressures” as well as firings and layoffs are all considered normal work pressures by the WCB.
“Working short is the issue that affects us all because it touches on something that affects us all: our mental health.”
There’s the rub. It can be extremely difficult to file a successful WCB claim for psychological injury because so much of what causes psychological injury is ignored or, at best, just considered part of the job.
Think of what would happen if the WCB recognized factors like short staffing and crushing workloads as hazards resulting in psychological injury? Of course, these factors contribute to our declining mental health, but to acknowledge that fact would force employers to be held to a much higher standard.
Imagine if the government, Alberta Health Services and universities were forced to do something about short staffing. Not going to happen, right? Perhaps, but that is why Gostola urges AUPE members to continue fighting for better staffing levels.
“We cannot expect the government or established institutions to save us,” she says. “We have to take that power into our own hands and force them to change. That’s what the labour movement was built on in the past, and it’s what we have to do today.”
AUPE’s Working Short campaign will carry on for as long as members working short carries on. However, in order to succeed, many more members must get involved to bring the issue to bargaining and the shop floor. We all deserve to feel safe and well at work; we owe it to ourselves and our coworkers to act.