A newly-declassified report into understaffing and mental health claims among Halifax Regional Police officers reveals a 259% increase in long-term absences since 2011.
The report from Melanie Gibson in the municipal Human Resources and Corporate Communications department is dated January 11, 2023. It’s marked “consolidated” as of Feb. 1, and declassified as of March 3.
There are few redactions and it’s unclear why the report was held back from the public through the budget process. The Halifax Examiner requested the report in early February. Spokesperson Ryan Nearing said it would be on the agenda at a future Board of Police Commissioners meeting. It’s been posted as part of the agenda for Thursday’s meeting.
But the board and regional council’s budget committee held multiple in camera sessions to discuss the report during the budget process.
During those debates, the board considered Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella’s requests for new staff, including a police psychologist and an occupational health nurse.
This report doesn’t recommend either of those positions, and neither did the board.
Halifax regional councillors, however, voted to consider both positions during their budget adjustment list debate later this month. Those would carry a total cost of more than $300,000 annually.
Long-term absences more than doubled
The report contains the type of information Kinsella has tried to suppress over the last two years as he requested increased staffing.
Gibson found long-term absences, defined as 30 days or longer, totalled 114,995 hours in 2022. That’s up from 44,243 hours in 2011, a 259% increase.
“Long-term absences for 2022 equates to approximately 55 FTE’s (full-time equivalents), up from 21 FTE’s in 2011,” Gibson wrote.
“While some long-term absences do not seem to show any consistent or increasing trend, others show a clear upward trend. The three types of leaves that make up the highest proportion of the overall long-term absence figures are Workplace Injury Leave, Long-term Disability (LTD), and Sick Leave.”
Hours off work due to workplace injury were up to 51,000 hours in 2022, Gibson found, equivalent to 24.5 FTEs. Likewise, long-term disability “hours in 2022 were the highest on record, with employees missing 26,786 hours of work,” Gibson wrote.
Gibson writes that one potential reason for the spike in hours is 2018 legislation that introduced “presumptive psychological injury coverage” for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other illnesses.
“With this change, front-line emergency services responders diagnosed with a psychological injury such as PTSD are presumed to have the psychological injury because of their exposure to traumatic event(s) in carrying out their job duties,” Gibson wrote.
Psychological injuries up across Canada
“Prior to this change in 2018, individuals with a psychological injury such as PTSD not formally linked to their job, may have had lost time in another leave category, for example, sick leave, or, for those undiagnosed cases, may not have taken any substantial time off at all, therefore not appearing anywhere in the long-term absence data.”
Claims for PTSD and other psychological injuries are up across Canada, Gibson noted, and it’s difficult for officers to get back to work afterward.
“A PTSD diagnosis can be very complex and there is no linear path to returning employees to work following time off for a psychological injury,” Gibson wrote.
“According to data provided by [the Workers Compensation Board (WCB)], specific to HRP employees, the average time away from work for a physical injury is eleven weeks versus fifty-three weeks for a psychological injury.”
Once those employees do return to work, Gibson wrote, it’s difficult for HRP to assign them the sort of lighter-duty tasks needed to avoid further trauma.
“A lack of suitable return to work arrangements could mean that an employee remains off work for longer periods of time,” Gibson wrote.
Further adding to the issues, there are a lack of job site analyses on HRP positions. Those are evaluations “of the functional demands of a position, conducted by an Occupational Therapist.”
Lastly, Gibson wrote COVID-19 worsened employee wellbeing generally, “thus potentially exacerbating mental health issues that employees may have already been facing.
“It also made receiving treatment and attaining necessary medical documentation more challenging, thereby potentially extending the length of time employees remained off work.”
Looking deeper into root causes, Gibson suggested officers are burnt out and potentially overworked. There was a lack of data on the total number of hours officers worked, and Gibson wrote that “general overtime hours can be difficult to draw conclusions from.”
Extra duty work flagged
But looking at extra duty employment — that’s officers on their off hours getting paid overtime to guard parades or produce at the grocery store — Gibson found a significant increase in the hours worked.
Officers worked 13,726 hours of extra duty from Jan. 1 to Nov. 19, 2022, compared to 7,521 hours in 2021. And they were paid $1.2 million in fiscal 2022 up to Jan. 11 of this year, compared to $585,201 in all of fiscal 2021.
Gibson noted there were fewer requests for extra duty in 2021 due to the pandemic, and officers are now making more money per hour as of November 2022. The union controls the overtime rate for extra duty, and moved it up to double time from time-and-a-half.
As for whether HRP is understaffed, as Kinsella has claimed in recent years, Gibson had no conclusion.
“There is no precise set of data identified that would indicate whether Halifax Regional Police is ‘understaffed,’” Gibson wrote.
“There are various sets of data that help to explain absenteeism levels or vacancies, but as to whether a department or unit is appropriately staffed depends on more than just how many FTEs there are in that department. It depends on a variety of factors including how many vacancies, long-term absences and short-term absences there are, the operational demands at that particular point in time as well as whether duties can be reassigned to other areas.”
Gibson noted HRP’s efforts to decrease claims and long-term absences, including meetings with a psychologist for high-risk employees; debriefs after incidents; a peer support program; and the new reintegration program.
The results of that program are redacted, but it said 11 have participated, and Kinsella told councillors last month that one officer is back to work through the program.
Recommendations up for police board debate
Gibson made 19 recommendations. Fourteen of those are classified as short to medium term, and those include six themes: data collection; workforce planning; reintegration program; return to work; assess existing data; and feedback mechanisms.
The remaining five recommendations are classified medium to long term, and those include three themes: focus on prevention; examine data; and attendance support.
The Board of Police Commissioners is expected to hold its first public debate on the report on Thursday.
Commissioner Harry Critchley has a motion on the agenda to “endorse the recommendations;” direct the chief and chief administrative officer to prepare a plan to implement them; and “to take immediate action” on one recommendation.
That recommendation: “Examine the total amount of time worked by employees, including overtime and extra duty to determine if there is a correlation between time worked and sick leaves usage and available staffing resources.”
Critchley’s motion calls on Kinsella and the CAO to take immediate action “by beginning to examine the total amount of time worked by HRP employees, including overtime and extra duty, to determine if there is a correlation between time worked and sick leaves usage and available staffing resources.”
The board meets at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth at 4:30pm.