Published on: January 19, 2015
Shannon Bittman is vice president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
Women in the public service go on disability leave at almost twice the rate of men, a problem some experts say should be addressed as part of the governments new disability management scheme.
The federal disability insurance plan, managed by Sun Life Financial, is the biggest in Canada. A Sun Life report obtained by the Citizen shows women have ended up on long-term disability at rates vastly disproportionate to their numbers in the public service for more than a decade, especially for mental health conditions.
Its a crisis, a toxic mix of gender, age and work strata and it can no longer go unnoticed. The government has an obligation and duty to care, said Joseph Ricciuti, president of SEB Benefits and HR Consulting.
In the meantime, the poor disability-claims numbers speak for themselves and will continue to impact women in the workforce, who are the hardest-hit and paying the socio-economic price.
The Sun Life report shows 11,670 federal employees are now on disability collecting benefits for anywhere from a few months to 25 years or more. The plans membership hit a peak in 2010, when it covered about 242,000 public servants. (The bureaucracy has been shrinking with the Conservatives downsizing, falling to about 219,400 today, while the average age of those covered increased from 43.8 years old to 44.6.)
In absolute numbers, 1,968 women were approved for disability in 2013 compared with 864 men. Women on disability have outnumbered men by at least two-to-one every year for the past decade.
Some of this difference can be explained because there are more women than men in the public service: women today account for about 55 per cent of the workforce.
But even accounting for this, the rate of approved claims per 1,000 women is still 80 to 90 per cent higher than the rate per 1,000 men for the period between 2006 and 2013.
In 2013, the rate of approved claims per thousand for women was 92 per cent higher than for men.
Experts have scratched their heads for years over whats behind the gender imbalance, but the issue doesnt appear to be among the reasons the government is overhauling the way sick leave and disability are managed in the public service. Its overhaul is the first major change in nearly 45 years.
Shannon Bittman, vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service, said unions hoped the issue would be addressed when Treasury Board launched its $5.6-million disability management initiative several years ago in a bid to get a handle on absenteeism and improve workplace health.
The main reform from that initiative is the governments current offer at the bargaining table to scrap sick leave and replace it with a short-term disability plan, a move unions say wont fix the problem.
If they are truly interested in the health of their employees and ensuring they have a healthy workplace, then I find it difficult to comprehend why they are not trying to get to the root cause of why this happening, Bittman said. Unless we identify the causes, we are blindly going for solutions.
This week, the giant Public Service Alliance of Canada upped the ante at contract negotiations with a mental health proposal aimed at getting at those root causes.
The government has four separate disability plans covering federal employees. The plan managed by Sun Life Financial is the largest and covers all unionized federal workers.
The report shows the largest numbers of men and women go on disability in mid or late career, with most claims clustered around those aged between 45 and 59. The average age for women approved for disability in 2013 was 46 years, compared with 49 for men.
By far the biggest driver of claims is mental health, led by depression and anxiety.
These claims have doubled since the 1990s, when they accounted for 24 per cent of claims. They represented nearly half of all claims by 2012, dipping to about 45 per cent in 2013 when Sun Life took steps to tighten up claim approvals. The next closest cause of claims is cancer, which accounted for about 14 per cent of claims.
In 2013, 47 per cent of all claims approved for women were for mental health conditions. Among men, claims for mental illness accounted for 39 per cent.
Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton Universitys Sprott School of Business, said she would expect womens claims to be 20- to 30-per-cent higher because there are more of them and women always report more. But she said an almost two-to-one difference is much higher than what I consider normal and there is something serious underlying there.
Duxbury worries the problem is too often dismissed as a gender issue, blamed on women who cant cope with menopause, child or elder care, or with juggling the demands of home and work.
If I was the government I would want to know what is behind those numbers. Is it gender and age? Or is it the position or level or years of service? she said.
My point is: Dont assume its gender just because it looks like a gender problem. If you have scotch and water you get drunk; if you have vodka and water or rye and water you get drunk so people conclude that water is the problem.
So dont blame it on gender because its easy. The fix is very different if the job is the problem, and so are the consequences.
That gender gap was even more pronounced among the younger, under-40 population, where claims in 2013 were fewer but the rate of disability among women compared to men was closer to three-to-one for some age groups, such as those between 35 and 39, and between 40 and 44.
The number of claims is higher among all workers over age 45, but the gap between men and women narrows.
Duxbury said the reasons arent clear, but those under age 40, especially women, are typically dealing with family responsibilities and small children, while older workers may be dealing with burnout from work stress.
Theres been much speculation over whats wrong with the federal workplace that was once dubbed the depression capital of Canada.
A Statistics Canada report found that Canadas public servants are absent including on disability more than workers in the private sector, and that much of that difference can be explained because they are unionized, a higher proportion are women, and they are older than the rest of the labour force.
Sir Cary Cooper, an international expert on workplace issues at Britains Lancaster University Management School in England, said the pattern of more women on disability is similar in all developed countries, whether in private or public sectors, especially for mental health claims.
The big shift began more than a decade ago as countries lost their manufacturing jobs and work became more knowledge-based. Almost overnight, claims shifted from physical to mental ailments.
Cooper said women are more likely to admit a problem in the workplace and seek help than men. Women are still largely the front-line caregivers and those in their mid-40s are at the peak of family, work and financial demands. They are shooting for promotions, putting kids through college, and still hitting the glass ceiling while getting paid less than men.
For public servants, however, Cooper said a big job stress is the lack of clarity and autonomy in their work.
Cooper said the only way to reduce mental health claims is to audit the practices and culture of departments, which is what the Mental Health Commission of Canadas national standard for a psychologically healthy workplace was designed to do.
The governments own executives have pressed to adopt that standard in all departments as part of the ongoing Blueprint 2020 plan to modernize the public service. The mental health demand that PSAC tabled at negotiations last week calls for the standard to be enshrined in employees contracts.
You have to get at what is causing this. Is it bullying, harassment, a long hours culture, poor management, people overloaded with work, inflexible work culture, women hitting the glass ceiling? Unpack that and you save a lot of money by dealing with it rather than redefining the benefits, said Cooper.
Duxbury expects an audit would find big problems with middle managers in the public service, who are mostly women. She calls them stress sandwiches between the upper and lower ranks who set the workplaces tone and culture.
Those middle managers include what the government calls the nearly 33,000 Ex minus 1 and 2s, the managers and supervisors in training for the executive jobs. They are typically between 46 and 48 years old.
Stephanie Rea, a spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, noted that women have higher claims for different illnesses. For instance, there are more claims from women for cancer, and men significantly outnumber women for claims related to back pain, she said in email.
She said the department doesnt have the data to examine a possible correlation between occupation groups and long-term disability.
We do, however, know that disability increases with age, a phenomenon that exists across the Canadian population as a whole.
To the unions, now locked in a standoff at the bargaining table over surrendering sick leave, its all evidence of problems that must be addressed. Clement is proposing a new short-term disability plan that includes fewer paid sick days, more case management and earlier rehabilitation.
The unions have pushed for years for more case management and rehabilitation to get people back to work faster and off the path to disability. But they argue the government can do that without taking away existing sick leave.
If the problem is a toxic workplace, which I think it is, then absenteeism is a symptom and the government is confusing the symptom with the problem, said Duxbury.
By the numbers for 2013
11, 670: Number of unionized federal workers on active
219,400: Number of unionized public servants covered by the federal disability insurance plan
44.6: Average age of public servants in the plan
3,777: Number of claims lodged by male and female public servants
2,832: Number of claims approved for disability
1,968: Number of women approved
864: Number of men approved.
12.9: Incidence rate or number of claims per 1,000 plan members. For women, 16.5 of every 1,000 were approved for claims. For men, 8.6 of every 1,000 were approved.
44.8: Percentage of total disability claims for mental health conditions
Source: Sun Life Financial report on the Federal Government Disability Insurance Plan.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the value of the disability management initiative . The story has been changed to reflect that it is worth $5.6 million.