When Does Inter-Personal Conflict Become a “Significant Work-Related Stressor”?

July 2016

It is often difficult to determine whether personal harassment, rudeness or simple bad manners meets the threshold of a “significant work related stressor” potentially qualifying the target of such behaviour for Workers’ Compensation benefits. Under the Workers’ Compensation Act, an employee is entitled to compensation for a mental disorder that is either a reaction to one or more traumatic events or “is predominantly caused by a significant work-related stressor” and is diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist as a mental or a physical condition.  The exception is where the condition relates to an employer’s decision to change work to be performed or working conditions, or a decision to invoke discipline or terminate employment.

In a recent decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal (WCAT – 2016 – 00642, issued on March 1, 2016), the Tribunal provided some guidance as to what conduct could establish a claim.

The worker in question was a residential support worker in a group home setting dealing with clients with mental health and addiction issues. Her undisputed evidence was that beginning in March of 2013 her cross-shift co-worker stopped sharing relevant information with her that she needed in order to care for the residents.  When a former co-worker was promoted to supervisor, both he and the co-worker ignored the claimant’s emails, would hang up on her during work-related telephone conversations, would not pass relevant information on to her so that she could perform her work, and called her at home and yelled at her.  She essentially was given the cold shoulder and felt alone and ostracized.

The employer argued that the difficulties faced by the worker should be characterized as “inter-personal conflict”. The worker’s representative argued that the conduct constituted bullying and harassment.

The Tribunal recognized that not all inter-personal conflict that is the result of conduct that is rude or thoughtless or in bad taste or unprofessional will be considered abusive. However, such conduct that a reasonable person ought to have known would cause humiliation or intimidation crosses the threshold into bullying and harassment.

The Tribunal gave some useful guidance as to the kinds of behaviour that would constitute a “significant work-related stressor”:

  • where interpersonal conflict results in behaviour that is considered threatening or abusive;
  • conduct that is intended to, or should reasonably have been known would, intimidate, humiliate or degrade an individual;
  • conduct that constitutes verbal aggression or insults;
  • sabotaging a person’s work or engaging in targeted social isolation;
  • conduct that is excessive in intensity and/or duration from what is experienced in the normal pressures or tensions of the employment.

Where the line will be drawn is often difficult to discern. In this case, both the Claims Adjudicator and the Review Officer had determined that, while the conduct “…may have been upsetting and stressful, it was not significant and/or beyond the normal pressures or tensions of a worker’s employment and was neither abusive nor threatening”. Clearly, the WCAT Vice Chair saw it differently and reached a different conclusion finding that the worker had developed a mental disorder arising out of and in the course of her employment and allowing her appeal.

The bottom line is that interpersonal conduct that (a) a reasonable person would find intimidating or humiliating, (b) is beyond the normal pressures or tensions of the work place, and (c) is either intense or of some duration, will likely qualify as a “significant work related stressor” thereby providing the basis for a claim if the other preconditions are met.