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The Psychology of Unlimited Medical Leave: An RCMP Story

Nov 04

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) members have been provided with, unusually for these trying economic times, a very generous, fiscally unsound, and organizationally perplexing medical leave policy.  The policy has allowed RCMP members unlimited (paid) medical leave.  That’s right, you who have a limited number of sick days, extended health benefits, and long term disability have read correctly.  When this policy is combined with the fact that RCMP managers, and senior executives, are not bound by any collective agreement governing the working conditions of their employees, you have a recipe for disaster.  The benefit is attractive to the membership and works reasonably well when the concern is an injury or illness; in most of these cases members return to work when healed or feeling better.

The disaster recipe, in short, involves management abuse of workers, who are then forced to take advantage of the medical leave policy and go “O.D.S.” (off duty sick).  In these cases the concern is related more to a workplace conflict, abuse or harassment; and in frustration with the absence of a formal, functioning, process designed to resolve the conflict and return the member to work, the member goes “O.D.S.” (sarcastically referred to by management as “O.D.M.”…off duty mad).  The absence of a functioning grievance process leads the member down the black hole of unlimited medical leave; that has lasted for months or even years.  And in answer to your anticipated question, yes they are being paid for the entire time.

The focus of this article is not on the dysfunctional medical leave policy (that we are told will be changing) but on the psychology of those RCMP members who have gone “off duty sick”.  If these members suffer any “mental disorder”, it is a normal reaction that is in response to a clearly “identifiable psychosocial stressor”; that is, their unresolved abuse, conflict, or harassment in the workplace.  The symptoms of this reaction tend to persist until the stressor is resolved.  As there is no process for resolving these members’ complaints and returning them to work, they have no idea how long a period away from work they will spend.  (If you are wondering about the RCMP’s existing grievance process, the previous Commissioner admitted that the abysmal time it takes to deal with members’ grievances is a, “systemic problem that has an impact on members and morale”).  Many believe that nothing has changed under Mr. Paulson’s reign.  So, in effect, a member’s time “off duty sick” can not only be unlimited but also uncertain.  For RCMP members in this situation, it is next to impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this day to day anxiety-ridden existence will end.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police members who cannot see the resolution of their complaints, or the end of their time on medical leave, give up aiming at long term career goals.  They cease looking into the future at job satisfaction, specific job related interests, promotion, and retirement.  The entire structure of their inner lives undergoes a significant change.

The type of existence experienced by these RCMP members resembles that of unemployed workers and prisoners.  Research work has shown that these populations suffer from a peculiar form of deformed time.  Their experience of time is one where a small unit of time, like a day for example, that is filled with moment to moment anxiety and fatigue, can seem endless.  Whereas a larger time unit, like a week, seems to pass much more quickly.  It is not uncommon for these RCMP members to comment that a day, in their lives, lasts longer than a week.

I have had clients, of this type, who reported they feel as if their careers are without any meaningful future.  They regard their career path as washed out, never to be restored.  This sense of a foreshortened career can be affected by additional factors; with regard to time, it is the uncertainty of a resolution to the conflict and the return to work; with regard to space, it is the narrow limits of their existence.  Life outside the house becomes unclear without their sense of identity.  Things associated with their office, or detachment, seem out of reach and in a sense unreal.  Police people and activities, all the usual business of the police universe becomes dreamlike and foreign.

Without a sense of future, the tendency is great for these members to let themselves decline.  In addition to aspects of personal hygiene, activity level, and social interaction they allow themselves to become preoccupied with the past.  They seem to look to the past in order to make the demands of the present easier, or less real.  The danger in this viewpoint however, is that when they have their heads cranked around looking into the past, they increase the chances of overlooking those infrequent opportunities for resolution that may appear in the present.  If they become too invested in regarding the present as absurd, or unreal, they then become convinced that everything they do, or their employer does, is pointless.  Rather than reframing the situation, for example as a test of their inner strength, they often view themselves and their lives less seriously and regard them as of less consequence.  They much prefer to close their eyes and sleep, or to return to the “glory days”.  Life for these members has taken on, especially vocationally, a meaningless quality.

With regard to the treatment of this unique client population, I have found that mainstream psychology is not enough.  I have found success in enhancing the traditional mainstream approach with interventions from community psychology.  I regarded the etiology of my clients’ “illnesses” as being transactional in nature; in contrast to the dispositional approach of mainstream psychotherapy.  Their problems were not determined solely by dispositional factors (e.g. cognitive distortions); but largely created by and through the systems and practices of their employer.  Their “illnesses” were not merely the expression of their own internal psychic make-ups, but also a consequence of the RCMP’s toxic corporate culture (i.e. “the way we do things around here”).  Royal Canadian Mounted Police members are immersed in that, widely recognized, toxic environment and forced to internalize it through the processes of thought and experience.

I adopted a more critical perspective and believed that viewing these clients’ “illnesses” from a dispositional perspective dehumanized them by reducing them to their “illnesses”, problems, and conflicts.  Moreover, it reinforced the issues that brought them to the attention of (RCMP) Occupational Health and Safety and kept them locked in a self subjugating social/personal/employee narrative.

This method of treatment involved assisting clients both by enabling them to externalize their “illnesses” and by inviting them to participate in the construction of new and liberating narratives.  I worked with them as a helpful ally to externalize and confront their “illnesses”.  I assisted them in separating themselves from their conflicts and attempted to enable them to actively participate in the emergence of new personal narratives, different versions of their situations, new images of themselves as workers and new ways of interacting with their employer.

Community psychology has long recognized that participation in community organizing and political action is both physically and psychologically therapeutic.  This type of activity has been shown to promote psychological well-being and individual empowerment.  It teaches competence and self efficacy, that can broadly enhance people’s lives.  It is for these reasons that this client population was encouraged to become active in bringing about change in their own work community (e.g. union organizing and membership).

As an adjunct to mainstream individualistic practice, I placed an emphasis on a variety of factors including:  a structural and systemic understanding of their employer; the experience of collective social forms (e.g. group work, union membership); corporate cultural issues (e.g. RCMP); gender issues in the workplace; ethnic issues in the workplace; sexual orientation issues in the workplace; and on methodologies that focus on a phenomenological understanding of their social psychological experience as members of an organization that stands at a crossroads in its history.

Anecdotally I had significant success with this approach.  The majority of my clients are physically and psychologically healthier now than they were when they went “off duty sick”.  They have each created a viable process that enables them to cope well through an extremely difficult period in their work lives.  Each one of them is willing and able to return to work “tomorrow”; pending their employer dealing impartially and expediently with their outstanding grievances, and creating a sense of safety in their workplace.  I can say with confidence that it was neither I, my method of treatment, nor my clients that was the impediment to them returning to work.  For us, therapy was about change, not adjustment to a toxic workplace.

Dr. Mike Webster, Registered Psychologist

  1. Anonymous permalink

    As a patient of Dr. Mike Webster’s I would like to add the following:

    As a result of continued harassment and bullying while at work in the RCMP from 2001 to present, I have recently been diagnosed by Dr. Webster as having an Adjustment/Mood disorder. I started to see Dr. Webster in 2011. When I received this diagnosis I applied to Veterans Affairs Canada for assistance. Subsequently, I supplied Veterans Affairs with documentation of the harassment along with Dr. Webster’s diagnosis.

    I received a letter from Veterans Affairs Canada that stated, as a result of the documentation that I supplied they have assessed me at 70% disabled. The letter went on to state that my disability was the direct result of the treatment that I was subjected to by the RCMP.

    I want to state the obvious to everyone out there:

    It took Veterans Affairs Canada less than 3 months to state the obvious. To date I have received nothing from my employer that states the obvious. I spent 11 years of my life trying to get acknowledgement from the RCMP that my career was intentionally destroyed by those with “DARK HEARTED BEHAVIOUR” (As quoted by Commissioner Paulson)

    I am of the belief that my days are numbered with the RCMP. I have come to believe that the person(s) that are considered to have “DARK HEARTED BEHAVIOUR” are those who have been harassed. Those who speak out because they have been wronged will be persecuted. This is what happens to those who speak out in the RCMP. Members of the RCMP are fearful to speak out about abuse, as they have seen what happens to those that do.

    If I am correct, (Commissioner Paulson), will utilize Bill C-42 to fire those of us that have been harassed. Better to get rid of the issue than to deal with it. If this proves out to be the case, I believe this will be the end of the RCMP as we know it. Bill C-42 is so full of Charter abuses that any lawyer/government employee can see it. However, it appears that the RCMP Act supersedes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This in my view is a step towards being a Police State, and being anti-democratic.

    My final note in this comment is this:

    If Veterans Affairs Canada has made their decision on my disability based on the documentation that I supplied along with Dr. Webster’s diagnosis, why hasn’t the RCMP?

    For fear of retribution I am sending this correspondence in anonymously. After all, I have been harassed enough.


    • Java permalink

      Hi there, I hope you are part of the class action lawsuit gainst the RCMP. If you want to join our on-line support group for members only please let me know. It is a secret group and confidential. It is made up of members just like you where we share information and lend support 🙂

  2. Anonymous, at this time. permalink

    I am the subject of a twist on Dr. Webster’s “disaster recipe”

    I refused to take advantage of the medical leave policy and go “O.D.S.”

    RCMP management, via a Health Services doctor, placed me “off duty sick”.

    I will make an extremely long story short by saying that I have been off duty for a very long time.

    They do not play nice. My physical and mental health have been negatively affected. My marriage and family have suffered. Despite threats, my pay has never stopped. It was not my doing, yet I feel embarrassed and guilty about my situation. Especially about being paid while not working. At the same time, the paycheques do not seem to be adequate compensation for what I have been through since my involuntary removal from duty.

  3. Anonymous permalink

    Hi Java, are you able to include former members?


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