Canadian Food Inspection Agency employees and their families are turning to counselling for work-related issues at three times the rate of other federal government workers.

Almost one in four – 23 per cent – of CFIA workers sought help in 2013 through the Employee Assistance Plan (EAP). The comparable figures for 2011 and 2012 were 16 and 20 per cent – a nearly 50 per cent rise over three years.

Average annual EAP use across the federal public service is seven per cent.

These revelations came to light in a January 23 article in Blacklock’s Reporter, a subscription-based Ottawa blog that specializes in uncovering news from government regulations, reports and committee deliberations often overlooked by mainstream media.

As Bob Kingston, Agriculture Union National President, pointed out in the article, this dramatic rise in the need for counselling has emerged in lockstep with cuts to staffing and other CFIA resources.

“CFIA is increasingly dysfunctional. It has not done the analysis to determine what resources are required to carry out its mandate effectively. As a result, the Agency is trying to do everything with nothing. Under these circumstances, it’s obvious that people will hit the wall.

“Ever since the Weatherill Report of 2009, we have been calling for a comprehensive audit of CFIA’s resources and a comparison of those available resources to the actual operational needs. Until this is done, the Agency is simply setting up their employees for failure, with the human toll that inevitably takes.”

Neither Agency management, not the Minister responsible for the CFIA, Health Minister Rona Ambrose, would comment on this distressing situation.

Excerpts from the Blacklock’s Reporter news item are as follows:

Most Stressful Job in Gov’t?

Meat inspectors and staff are seeking psychological counselling at a rate up to three times the federal average, according to new data. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported thousands of employees and their families sought counselling last year over job stress: “It’s a very dysfunctional organization”.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says the equivalent of more than a fifth of its workforce sought counselling last year under an Employee Assistance Program, including anxiety over job stress.

“We have not seen these numbers,” said Bob Kingston, national president of the Agriculture Union; “It is not surprising; they do not have the people required to do the job, regardless of what the public is told.”

Health Minister Rona Ambrose, responsible for the inspection agency, did not comment.

Agency records indicate a payroll of some 7000 employees including inspectors, research scientists, systems specialists, lab technicians and support staff. Of the total, the number of Employee Assistance cases averaged 16 percent in 2011; then 20 percent in 2012; then rising to 23 percent last year.

Across the federal civil service a 7 percent rate is more typical, according to data from Health Canada’s government-wide Employee Assistance Services.

“They are setting up employees for impossible tasks and all kinds of public criticism when these aren’t met,” said Kingston. “It’s a very dysfunctional organization with very dysfunctional management, under-resourced to a degree they will not admit because it would ‘compromise public confidence’ – and I have heard managers use those words.”

The agency did not comment.

Management of federal inspection has been faulted in two recent food scandals: a 2008 listeriosis outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods Inc. of Toronto that resulted in 23 deaths and a $27 million class-action lawsuit; and the 2012 shipment of E.coli-tainted beef from XL Foods Inc. of Brooks, Alta., that resulted in 18 causes of consumer illness and the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

“CFIA personnel are required to respond to food safety-related emergencies wherein they could be exposed to situational stress which taxes one’s emotions and physical well-being,” the agency reported. “In today’s environment, with high expectations put on government employees to deliver the highest service possible with the fewest number of employees, many employees are experiencing increased stress levels on a daily basis.”

“We live in a climate of diminishing resources,” Kingston said. “It’s a very trying time for a lot of people.”