Supporting employee mental health can mean providing time off from stressful situations
More than one out of three workers with mental health issues say stress is the main cause of those issues, according to a 2017 study by Morneau Shepell (now LifeWorks) and the Globe and Mail. And out of those people, 70 per cent say that their work experience has affected their mental health.
With workplace mental health awareness on the rise, employers and their HR need to be ready to support employees suffering from mental illness, including the possibility of allowing them a leave of absence.
What to do if an employee’s job is affecting their mental health
When someone is significantly stressed, it can build over time into chronic stress and mental illness. It can manifest symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, irritability, depression, excessive worrying about certain things, a lack of motivation, and an inability to concentrate. These symptoms can also trigger physical ailments, whether new ones or aggravating pre-existing ones. All of these can affect someone’s work performance and overall health.
Employers can play an important role in supporting employees with mental health issues. They should have a mental health policy in place and communicate it to employees. Managers and supervisors should be approachable and open to discussing solutions for employees needing mental health support, be it a leave of absence or another solution.
In addition, if the employer has an employee assistance plan (EAP), then the employee can be encouraged to use it. Even if an employee is just dealing with normal stress, EAPs usually have resources to help with stress management.
Employers should preach and practice the prioritization of mental health, says an expert.
Can employees take a leave of absence for mental health?
While stress on its own doesn’t entitle someone to time off —stress is a normal part of life — it can build up to the point where it has a serious impact on an individual’s mental health. In the 2017 Morneau Shepell/Globe and Mail survey, 78 per cent of respondents reported missing work due to their mental health, so taking time off for mental health reasons is not uncommon. Most Canadian jurisdictions entitle employees to some sort of legislated personal leave, whether paid or unpaid. For example, in Ontario, employees are entitled to up to three days of unpaid sick leave under the province’s Employment Standards Act, 2000, including for stress or other mental health issues.
Someone who is experiencing mental health issues may be too embarrassed or unable to tell anyone, let alone their employer, that they need help or time off. Stress-related mental health symptoms may be observed by managers or co-workers who report them. If an employer becomes aware of such symptoms, it should inquire if the employee needs accommodation through a leave of absence or other form of support. Ultimately, it should work out better for the employer, as an employee overcome with stress and experiencing poor mental health is going to be tired, less motivated, less productive, and could have a negative effect on the work environment.
If the employee requests accommodation or a mental health-related leave of absence, it’s usually reasonable for the employer to request medical evidence to support the mental disability before granting leave.
Can employees leave work due to mental health?
If it’s a short-term thing where an employee may just need a time-out from stressful situations, they can probably take a partial or full sick day, or a vacation day — employers should try to be flexible whenever possible, as a stressed-out employee forced to work may not be great to have in the workplace. Some employers even offer specially designated “mental health days.” It’s important to remember that mental illness doesn’t manifest the same as physical illness — but it can contribute to physical health problems such as compromised immune systems, for example.
If it looks like the employee’s condition may require more than a day or two off, communication between the employer and the employee is important to determine if a long-term leave of absence is necessary and whether medical documentation is needed.
Can someone be fired for missing work due to mental illness?
Normal stress is not considered a mental disability and workers who don’t show up for work for that reason can be disciplined — although termination may be excessive if the employer hasn’t tried other, less serious disciplinary measures first. While stress itself may not have to be accommodated, if it contributes to or aggravates an employee’s mental illness, that may change things. Mental illness is considered a disability — which means it’s a medical condition that can be treated and is also a protected ground under human rights legislation across Canada.
If an employer fires an employee for missing work and the reason the employee missed work is because of a mental illness, it could be discriminatory. If the employee has a mental disability that was in any way a factor in the termination decision, it’s still discrimination regardless of any other reasons. Employers must tread carefully and ensure that they don’t have a duty to accommodate before firing an employee. In most cases, it’s better to be cautious and consider alternative solutions as much as possible before resorting to termination.
Workplace mental health training for managers could reduce employee sick days, a study has found.
When should someone take time off work for mental health?
Someone should take a mental health leave from work when they feel overwhelmed due to stress and feel that they can’t function properly. The time off can be used to take a breather and focus on self-care, while getting away from the source of the stress. Professional help through counselling, psychotherapy, or sleep analysis may be necessary as well.
There’s no set time for how long a mental health leave should be. It depends on the individual’s circumstances along with the nature and seriousness of their mental illness. It could be they just need a week or two away from work, or it could be many months until they are fit to work. Medical information from a healthcare provider may be able to provide an estimate — if not initially, then at some point with periodic assessments. Fitness to return to work may also depend on a graduated return, rather than to regular duties on a full-time basis.