Approved public service mental health claims pass 50 per cent threshold for first time

By MIKE LAPOINTE      JUL. 3, 2019
Union reps attribute the rise in approved mental health disability claims to the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system, as well as changes in workplace culture that have reduced the stigma around mental health reporting.
PSAC national president Chris Aylward says more investigation is needed ‘to understand whether there are systemic issues at play’ to account for the rise in approved mental health disability claims made by federal public service employees in 2018. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Claims involving mental health conditions represented 52 per cent of disability insurance claims approved for federal public service employees in 2018, according to data contained in a Public Service Alliance of Canada presentation on federal public service disability trends.

This information was provided to The Hill Times and was based on the contents of a Sun Life Financial report.

This data was recently shared with the National Joint Council’s Disability Insurance Plan Board of Management by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), according to a June 24 release on the union’s website.

This is the first time mental health claims have exceeded the 50 per cent mark in the 49-year history of the federal disability insurance plan, according to PSAC.


Depressive episodes/depression accounted for the largest percentage of disability claims involving mental health conditions at 19.2 per cent, according PSAC’s presentation, with recurrent depressive disorders/depression falling second at 9.7 per cent. Adjustment disorders (grief, separation, etc.) accounted for 5.6 per cent, with generalized anxiety accounting for 4.7 per cent.

“We definitely need to investigate further to understand whether there are systemic issues at play here or not,” said Chris Aylward, national president of PSAC, in an interview with The Hill Times.

Women overrepresented in approved disability claims

Although women only represent 55 per cent of employees in the federal public service, they account for 69 per cent of all federal disability insurance claims approved in 2018, according to PSAC’s press release.


“The approved claims are almost twice as likely to come from women as opposed to men,” said Mr. Aylward. “So again, we really need to dig deep into this.”

“Unfortunately, this government doesn’t seem to be that concerned about it.”

Mr. Aylward said that one of the contributing factors that has led to PSAC’s current impasse at the bargaining table with the government has to do with the government’s intention to delete Appendix M (the Memorandum of Agreement for a Joint Task Force on Mental Health) from the current collective agreement. The union, which represents 90,000 public service workers, began negotiations with the government on April 30.

According to a May 3 PSAC press release, “the government is refusing to implement recommendations stemming from a previous child care [Memorandum of Understanding on mental health], and is resisting our proposal to allow nursing women breastfeeding breaks.”


“These positions are at odds with the Liberals’ claimed feminist agenda and the right to breastfeed in the Canada Labour Code,” according to the release.

“PSAC made it clear over the last few months that this bargaining session was Trudeau’s last chance to restore a respectful relationship with public service workers—as he promised to do back in 2015,” said Mr. Aylward in the release. “If he’s not willing to make this right before the next election, I know PSAC members won’t forget it when they head to the ballot box.”

The Treasury Board Secretariat referred The Hill Times to an emailed statement provided to Benefits Canada.

Martin Potvin, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board, said the federal government created the federal public service workplace mental-health strategy “as part of its efforts to build a healthy, respectful, and supportive work environment,” along with the centre of expertise on mental health in the workplace to help federal organizations implement action plans related to the strategy.


“The government will continue to work to address mental-health issues in the workplace, including through discussions with bargaining agents, and make sure all the right elements are in place to bring more awareness, tools and support to tackle this important issue,” said Potvin. “With the bargaining agents, the government has, and continues to make, substantial progress to support the mental health of our employees.”

The government adopted the Federal Public Service Workplace Mental Health Strategy in 2016.

‘Shifts in attitudes’ part of increase in mental health reporting in public service, says union rep

Scott Chamberlain, director of labour relations and general counsel with the Association of Canadian Financial Officers (ACFO), said his group saw an increase in mental health-related files in labour relations in and around the former Conservative government’s deficit reduction action plan, which saw cuts made to the public service.


In 2009, there were 274,370 people in the federal public service. That rose to 282,980 the next year before dropping to a low of 257,034 in 2015, a decrease precipitated by the Harper government’s desire to balance the books before the 2015 election after going into the red to finance infrastructure projects to help stimulate a recession-battered economy.

Scott Chamberlain, director of labour relations and general counsel with ACFO, says there’s been more education around mental health in the public service that encourages people to self-identify. Photo courtesy of LinkedIn.

“I think there was, for obvious reasons, a stress increase across the public service at the time, and that naturally when people are under stress with underlying mental health challenges, they tend to rise to the surface,” said Mr. Chamberlain.

But Mr. Chamberlain also alluded to shifts in attitudes around mental health reporting within the public service, something he’s noticed throughout his 15 years within the industry.

“There’s certainly a lot more education and communications in the department encouraging people to self-identify, whereas I think your average public servant 20 years ago might have been very cautious about identifying themselves as having a mental illness,” said Mr. Chamberlain.


“I’m sure that the reporting has gone up because of education and people’s general awareness and a decrease of stigma,” said Mr. Chamberlain. “When people are overworked, when people are tired, when people are feeling stressed, there’s the normal stuff, there’s a whole spectrum.”

“I’ve represented members who have just generalized stress at work and needed a day off, and I’ve had people that have had to medically retire, because they’re just incapable of working anymore for legitimate medical reasons,” he said.

Union reps say Phoenix pay system problems source of mental health issues

Stéphane Aubry, vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said that the fallout associated with the Phoenix pay system is one the key elements in triggering stress for employees which could lead to taking leave from work.

“And then taking leave doesn’t resolve the situation of having pay issues, so it’s a loop at the same time,” said Mr. Aubry.

Mr. Aubry said his group insisted that questions on mental health—specifically surrounding the impact of Phoenix—be included in the most recent public service employee survey. The 2017 survey was the first to include questions on mental health in the workplace.

“Those numbers do demonstrate that there were work-related issues, work-related stress, and strain on the capability of workers to properly work related to pay issues,” said Mr. Aubry.

According to results from the 2018 public service employee survey, which asked about mental health and pay but did not explicitly connect the two, 70 per cent of employees indicated that their pay or other compensation had been affected by issues with the Phoenix pay system, up one per cent from 2017.

Mr. Alyward said his group “knows for a fact” that their members “have been to hell and back” because of the system.

“One of the things that is very evident to us at least is that we also need to investigate to what extent the Phoenix pay system crisis has contributed to the increase in mental health claims,” said Mr. Aylward.

The Phoenix system has dogged the government for years and left thousands of public servants underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all. Originally meant to streamline pay and save the government $70-million annually, Phoenix has cost the government more than $1.2-billion and counting. It’s estimated that 223,000 federal public servants were overpaid between April 2016 and January 2019.

According to the Public Service Pay Centre dashboard, the number of financial transactions beyond normal workload decreased by 6,000 between April 17 and May 29—with 239,000 remaining.

History of mental health disability claims in the federal public service

According to the 2018 public service employee survey, 71 per cent of employees indicated that their organization does a good job of raising awareness of mental health in the workplace—an improvement of four per cent from 2017—and 59 per cent of employees also described their workplace as being psychologically healthy, a three per cent improvement from 2017.

But headlines around disability issues in the public service have dogged the government for more than a decade. The incidence of disability claims by public servants hit a record high in 2008 according to a report from The Ottawa Citizen, when unionized public servants filed 3,234 disability claims.

The Ottawa Citizen also reported that 23 per cent of disability claims filed in 2011 cited depression, and that 70 per cent of claims for mental health conditions were filed by women. The value of all banked sick leave in the federal public service hit $5-billion that year.

Former Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, who stepped down from the position in March, said people, departments, and agencies are working hard to de-stigmatize mental health issues in May 2018. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade.

Former Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, who stepped down from the position in March, told The Hill Times in May 2018 that people, departments, and agencies are working hard to de-stigmatize mental health issues and ensure people are comfortable coming forward, but that he’s “sure that not everyone” knows where to turn.

“I think making that easier to navigate and making sure that those support services are there, that’s a challenge for us as it is for every employer,” said Mr. Wernick at the time, adding the bureaucracy has a duty to be a mental wellness leader.

Mr. Wernick’s son, Paul Wernick, spoke out last year about his own experience with and concerns over workplace mental health for staff working on Parliament Hill, calling for institutional changes to be made.

The Hill Times