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Federal budget cuts mean more employees struggling with layoff anxiety

A distress line for federal public servants is on track to receive a record number of calls this year as prolonged staffing cuts create high levels of anxiety.

Staff in many offices and branches in the federal public service – which has offices across the country – are waiting to find out if their positions will be eliminated.

But one program at Health Canada avoided layoffs and is currently hiring.

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The Employee Assistance Program now has 52 staff providing 24-hour assistance, 365 days a year. The counselling service puts public servants in touch with a specialist who has at least a master's degree in counselling, social work or psychology.

Last year, the office received about 41,000 calls, a record. By the end of August, the office had already received 30,009 calls with four months left in the year.

"It's been a steady increase in terms of calls over the last three years," said Francois Legault, who is the director of the counselling program. "We're seeing a spike this year, as we expected. They're probably related to the anxiety of Budget 2012."

Mr. Legault said 167 calls were identified as a suicidal risk last year. Over the first eight months of this year, the office has received 155 suicidal-risk calls.

The issue of mental health in the federal public service surfaced earlier this week when a widow of a lawyer with Justice Canada spoke to Radio-Canada about her husband's suicide in July, which occurred after he received a notice that his job might be affected.

The woman said her husband had suffered from anxiety long before joining the government, and said she was speaking out to encourage other public servants to seek help if they are struggling.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement was visibly shaken this week when asked about the interview, but did not want to speak more broadly about the personal impact of the government-wide spending cuts.

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"This is a personal tragedy," he said. "I think you'd be well advised to have your thoughts and prayers for the family of that person."

The Conservative government's 2012 budget outlined a plan to cut 19,200 jobs, or 4.8 per cent of total federal employment, over three years. The budget estimated that about 7,000 of those positions could be eliminated through attrition.

Public service unions are offering programs of their own to help workers struggling with anxiety and depression. Union leaders note that it's not just laid-off workers who are feeling stressed. The layoff process – in which waves of people are told their jobs may be "affected" – is also a source of stress.

There were several waves of letters in late spring and another wave went out earlier this month.

"It's very disturbing to see that people are being sent affected notices in large numbers," said Claude Poirier, the president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, one of the main federal unions. "It creates sort of a panic in departments."

As an example, Mr. Poirier noted that of the 2,000 Statistics Canada employees represented by his union, 1,200 received "affected" letters even though not all of them will be laid off.

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