Stress from performance warnings not a mental disability

Complaints about worker’s performance and employer’s meetings about them caused her stress but no evidence of disability requiring accommodation
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 04/06/2018

Awareness of mental disabilities and the need for employers to accommodate them the same as they would physical disabilities is on the rise. However, accommodation is a co-operative process and when an employee requests accommodation, it doesn’t automatically mean the employer has a duty to accommodate. The employee must be able to show she actually has a mental disability requiring accommodation, not just normal workplace stress.

A British Columbia worker who claimed her employer caused her to develop a mental disability from a toxic workplace and then dismissed her because of that disability has had her claim dismissed by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Tracey Young was a social worker hired by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) in August 2016 to work in a psychiatric ward at a hospital for patients with psychiatric illnesses. The unit to which Young was assigned was for both mild and severe psychiatric illnesses. When she started, her employment was subject to a three-month probationary period.

A bad start

It wasn’t long after Young started at the hospital that her manager and the human resources department were informed of issues with her job performance. Young’s co-workers and psychiatrists in her unit reported that Young was unmotivated and frequently said she wanted to “change things” on the unit once her probationary period expired. In addition, she wasn’t interacting or collaborating well with her co-workers and many believed she didn’t like working there.

Young herself felt that she was being excluded from the team in her unit  — including being left on an email list — and was being bullied. She thought several co-workers were acting hostile and unfriendly towards her, though she couldn’t understand why. After two co-workers bullied her, she started looking at job postings and applying for other jobs.

On Oct. 21, 2015, Young attended a “check in” meeting with her manager and the patient care co-ordinator. She told them that she was already looking for employment elsewhere because of the workload and workplace issues she was experiencing. Her manager expressed concerns over her refusal to do certain work, to collaborate with co-workers, and her comments about changing things. Young denied making comments about changing things but said she was justified to refuse certain tasks regarding patient referrals if she didn’t think it was in the best interests of the patient. She also said she wasn’t used to performing certain clerical jobs, but they told her everyone was expected to pitch in on paperwork for referrals.

Young became distressed by the end of the meeting and told the manager and patient care co-ordinator that she felt like she had been “punched in the stomach” and didn’t feel safe at work anymore. The manager reiterated that the role of the social worker in the unit was to work collaboratively in a fast-paced environment and she was expected to meet those requirements.

After the meeting, the manager and patient care co-ordinator were concerned over Young’s ability to manage her workload, her suitability for the social worker positions, and the commitment to it. One week after the meeting, the manager spoke briefly with Young and asked her how she was doing. Young replied that she was doing fine.

However, the following week, Young’s manager spoke to some of her co-workers who still had issues with her. They reported that she was still making critical comments about how the unit was operating, she wasn’t a team player and she was avoiding working with a particular colleague. She also had a tendency to pass off patient referrals to nursing students and other workers in the unit by saying she was too busy. It was also reported that Young was undermining one of the physicians. One co-worker said Young didn’t seem happy and she had said she wouldn’t be there for long.

The manager also heard that Young had said “people with mental illness should not have children” and she was going to make sure a patient who had kids wouldn’t see them again. She was judgmental about patients’ inability to change and said some had no hope. In addition, she didn’t write letters for patients, saying it was outside the scope of her job.

The manager decided to meet with Young, an HR representative and a union representative on Nov. 12. The manager reviewed the issues that had been brought to his attention and advised Young that it was within the role of the social worker to complete referrals and not to delegate work to other staff. He also said her various comments about patients and staff and her disrespectful attitude towards co-workers were “unacceptable, unprofessional, and highlighted her questionable judgment.” The manager concluded by saying she didn’t seem vested in her position and her behaviour was not that of someone who wanted to continue working in that role.

According to the manager, Young tried to deflect his concerns and seemed more concerned with which of her co-workers complained about her. She confirmed she had been applying for jobs elsewhere and planned to resign as soon as she found one but denied saying any of the things attributed to her.

Employee stressed out by management’s concerns

Following the meeting, Young claimed to be in “a profound state of emotional distress and reactivity” and felt management was attacking her, despite their claims it wasn’t a disciplinary process.

A few days later, another of Young’s co-workers told the manager Young frequently stayed in her office and wasn’t as accessible as other social workers on the unit, and she also asked nurses to book her meetings, despite the fact she had been told nurses weren’t supposed to perform that task. A follow-up meeting with Young didn’t help, as she was argumentative and kept interrupting the manager.

On Nov. 19, Young was told that one of the high-risk patients with whom she had been working had committed suicide while out on a pass. Young said this was the last straw emotionally for her, and the harassment and abuse she had felt at work came “crashing down on her.” She called in sick the next day and filed two workers’ compensation claims for mental trauma — one from the patient’s suicide and one from the bullying, harassment, and discrimination she said she had experienced at the VCHA hospital.

Over the next few days, Young said no one tried to find out if she was okay and management continued their attacks on her despite signs her mental and physical health was deteriorating. She eventually called in sick for five days on Nov. 23 and informed her manager. The same day, VCHA sent her a letter terminating her employment.

Young filed a human rights complaint claiming VCHA discriminated against her in her employment on the basis of mental disability by exposing her to harassment and bullying and terminating her when she developed mental health issues because of it.

The tribunal found that there was no evidence Young suffered from a mental disability. She didn’t provide any medical documentation supporting her claim other than her own description of mental and emotional stress. And while she may have shown signs of stress in the meetings with management and made comments to that effect, she didn’t request accommodation and there was no reason for VCHA to believe what she was feeling reached the extent of a mental disability — and no reason to inquire after her health, the tribunal added.

The tribunal determined that Young’s allegations amounted to workplace stress caused by the employer investigating performance problems that had come to its attention and Young’s worry that her job was in jeopardy during her probation period. Her reactions in the meetings were more likely from “situational anxiety or stress” and not caused by a mental illness — and Young didn’t advise of any disability or request accommodation anyway. As a result, the tribunal dismissed Young’s complaint as having no reasonable prospect of success.

For more information see:

Young v. Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and others, 2018 CarswellBC 260 (B.C. Human Rights Trib.).

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