Disability claims involving toxic workplace allegations surge with return to office: injury lawyer

Workers coming back from online-only to toxic work environments causing uptick: Nainesh Kotak

Disability claims involving toxic workplace allegations surge with return to office: injury lawyer
Nainesh Kotak

As employees trickle back to the office after years of remote work, many are once again confronted with toxic environments they have been able to avoid. Nainesh Kotak, a personal injury lawyer, says the shift is reflected in an upswing in disability cases involving allegations that the stress of a toxic workplace is weighing on claimants’ mental health.

Most of Kotak’s long-term disability cases have a mental health component, and in most of those cases, the workplace environment either caused or contributed to mental illness.

“During the pandemic, there was almost a buffer for office workers to avoid situations where they were having difficulties in terms of interacting with their co-workers or bosses because they work from home,” he says. “But as that has started to change, I've seen more claims related to a toxic work environment.”

According to the employment recruitment firm Robert Walters, 60 percent of the more than 2,500 workers they surveyed said they experienced workplace stress that emerged in 2023. Although Canadian workplaces have increased their spending on wellness initiatives by 20 percent since the pandemic began, 62 percent of workers do not think their employers are doing enough.

Kotak says toxic workplaces are typically fraught with significant personal conflict, including gossip and bullying, and often saddled with unbearable workloads. This can lead to panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and depression. A toxic work environment can trigger long-standing issues for those with a pre-existing condition or childhood trauma. The legal remedy is to make a disability claim for either short-term or long-term disability, he says.

Kotak says that one difficulty associated with disability claims is that symptoms are often invisible and stigmatized, and the availability of care is lacking – especially in rural areas – so people tend to underreport their symptoms, or they do not report them at all. This results in an insurer’s denial of disability benefits.

To counter this, he says claimants must seek the appropriate treatment. Then, they can sue the employer or the insurance company, obtain expert reports showing the diagnosis and explain how it impacts their ability to function. When a toxic workplace is a factor, claimants should document, as much as possible, and in detail, the incidents that occur. That includes naming any witnesses. If the workplace has an HR department, they should lodge formal complaints. If the situation is ignored, it could result in a claim for constructive dismissal.

Kotak says human rights are also often involved, with claimants arguing that they were targeted based on gender, disability, or other grounds protected from discrimination under the Human Rights Code.

He says the burden is always on the plaintiff to prove their case on a balance of probabilities. That is why documentation is so important, as is taking steps to report the toxic environment to a supervisor.

“Many employers have… an employee assistance program,” says Kotak. “I would encourage people who are going through trauma from their toxic work environment to use that because it's a free resource.”

The employment assistance program is crucial, he says, because the plaintiff has a duty to mitigate. Whether it is an employment dispute or a disability claim, the plaintiff must attempt to mitigate the harm, including by seeking whatever treatment is available.

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