Health and Safety

Supporting First Responders with Occupational Stress Injuries

July 5, 2021

Our understanding of work-related injuries has moved far beyond simply physical injuries. Mental health in general has gained more attention in recent years, and many organizations have introduced supports for their employees. In particular, there is a growing awareness of occupational stress injuries among first responders and healthcare workers, employees typically exposed to critical, extraordinary events, such as violence and trauma, both directly and indirectly. We are here to provide employers with essential insights and guidance to help reduce occupational stress injuries to first responders.

What are occupational stress injuries?

The Canadian Mental Health Association defines occupational stress injuries as “any persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties.” Individuals experiencing a high level of operational stress are at a greater risk of suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Given how frequently first responders and healthcare workers encounter traumatic events in their jobs, they are four times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder than the average person. In particular, paramedics have the highest self-reported suicide attempts compared to other first responders. The CSA has published a psychological health and safety standard specifically for paramedics due to their increased risk of occupational stress injuries.

Any aspect of the job that directly or indirectly affects the employee’s psychological wellness can result in occupational stress injuries. It highlights the importance of having a mental health first aid guide in place so that businesses know what to do when a situation arises. These are a few common symptoms of stress-induced injuries, but this list is not exhaustive:

  • Anxiety;
  • Panic attacks;
  • Depression; and
  • Addictive behaviour.

Government support for occupational stress injuries

Today, most Canadian jurisdictions recognize the growing need for government intervention and have amended their legislation to include provisions for psychological injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The legislation varies across jurisdictions, but most include the presumption that employees in certain occupations who are diagnosed with PTSD developed the condition due to their work. This presumption allows affected employees to seek help and workers’ compensation benefits more easily.

The Conference Board of Canada and the Public Services Health and Safety Association (PSHSA) have developed the Occupational Stress Injury Risk (OSIR) Index.  This is a non-diagnostic screening tool to assess occupational stress injury risks among first responders and frontline healthcare workers in Canada. Organizations can also use the tool to measure the effectiveness of their programs and resources at reducing occupational stress injury among employees. A study completed by the Conference Board and PSHSA revealed important factors to prevent occupational stress injuries, such as employer supports and employee perceptions. Although the importance of mental health has gained attention, there is still a stigma associated with mental health issues that can deter employees from seeking the help they need.

An employer’s role in reducing occupational stress injuries

Even though it’s not possible to completely remove the elements of trauma and violence from a first responder’s job, there are still many things that can be taken into consideration to help reduce the chances of occupational stress injuries. It is essential to know that not just the first responders or the healthcare workers are exposed to occupational stress injuries. In fact, any employee from any industry can experience such injuries. As mentioned earlier, for employers, knowing what to do when the situation occurs can make a big difference. The biggest way employers can and should help their first responder employees is by having appropriate supports in place. Download our FREE Reducing Occupational Stress Injuries Guide to devise actionable plans to help and support your struggling employees.

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