Proposed changes to public service sick leave – where will that leave employees affected by mental health illnesses?

On June 10, 2013, Treasury Board President Mr. Tony Clement announced the Government of Canada’s intended plan for ‘Modernizing Disability Management’ in the public service (

In his announcement, Mr. Clement spoke of the Government’s plans for engaging union stakeholders in making these changes to create a system that is more ‘effective, efficient and fair to all employees’.  He also spoke of the need to revamp the current system that dates back forty years to a time where “mental illness—stress, anxiety, depression—were not admitted to or acknowledged”.

This is an important point and I will be very interested to see how mental illness will be addressed in the development of this new disability/leave system.

Over this past year, mental illness has received a great deal of focus and there are reports saying that nearly 1 in 5 people will be afflicted.  Here are some things that I believe to be true about mental illness:

  1. The symptoms of mental illness are not always readily apparent and may appear over a long period of time;
  2. Symptoms of mental illness are not always recognized as conditions of a worsening disease;
  3. Mental illnesses are difficult to define (diagnose) and may not be identified for a long period of time and may require specialists;
  4. Mental illnesses require ongoing treatment and accommodation (perhaps for life);
  5. Mental illness carries stigma (still) and many people are ashamed to admit that they have a mental illness
  6. Managers may struggle with how to deal with a mentally ill employee and then try to apply discipline as a means of “fixing” the problem (which in-turn creates more stress);
  7. Micromanaging, bullying and harassment can lead to mental illness or exacerbate existing conditions.

If the new disability system is to rely more heavily on short and long-term insurance providers to offer financial support to employees during a period of illness, I have concerns about those employees who may not meet the criteria of an insurance policy.

Mental illnesses could be the most likely medical leave claims to be denied simply because they take so long to define, the symptoms can be non-specific, and the person can have good days and bad days.

Faced with a denied claim, one scenario could see a sick employee attempt to return to work and, within a few months, be involved in disciplinary action on account of performance or absenteeism issues, and the situation deteriorates further.

If the plan is to move to insurance companies for public service sick leave, then the policies must be fair to all employees and the opportunities for denying claims reduced.  Life is not all about surgery to repair a physical problem or broken bone – the brain can become ill and those unique needs must be part of the consideration or we’re just talking the talk about mental illness.  We need to make sure that we understand and account for the complications of mental illness within these new programs.  This way we can ensure that ALL workers can be treated justly when mental illness and personal trauma strikes.

My sincere hope is that the new system that promises “enhanced support for current and emerging issues like mental illness” does indeed take into account the special circumstances, challenges, and support needed by employees affected by mental health issues.

(For full TBS media release: )


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