Accommodating mental illness strategically

Series of reactive responses to requests for accommodation not healthy approach

In the past few years, the dialogue about workplace mental health has increased dramatically. And the message is consistent: More attention must be paid to workplace mental health. Cost drivers are demanding attention — rising disability costs, productivity losses and absence management issues alone are cause for concern for most employers.

These factors, combined with increasing life and work stressors for many employees, and emerging trends in the legal landscape that are driving up the level of due diligence for employers, are all merging — and overwhelming some employers and HR departments.

Workplaces, more than ever, are asking for information, support and guidance on how to meet their responsibilities in addressing the mental health needs of workers.

Mental Health Works, a program of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Ontario division, has been working with employers for more than a decade to increase awareness, foster understanding and build workplace solutions around the concerns of employers and employees alike regarding mental health. In talking to supervisors, managers and HR about issues pertaining to mental health from a front-line perspective, Mental Health Works trainers and consultants are often asked about an employer’s rights and responsibilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

But it is important for employers to consider approaching these issues strategically, rather than through a series of reactive responses to employee requests for accommodation, or as an exercise merely to be compliant with the code.

It makes good business sense and meets human rights obligations for employers to be proactive in the removal of barriers for employees who have disabilities, including mental health disabilities.

What does this entail? The short answer:

• Increasing capacity for flexibility in how work tasks are done.

• Addressing the attitudinal barriers all staff and management may have related to stigma, discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion towards people who have mental health issues.

• Equipping front-line supervisors and managers to have effective conversations with employees.

The long answer: Step back and look strategically at all workplace systems and the cost interactions. Fewer employees doing more work may seem like a cost savings but this can also increase sick days and short- and long-term disability claims. This wouldn’t be known unless the two issues were looked at strategically.

For employees who have a mental health disability, the greatest barrier is often attitudinal. Society’s attitudes towards people who have a mental illness are often not positive — workplaces can actively address this through education and training that raise awareness and drive action to address stigma and discrimination.

A core competency of front-line supervisors and managers is their ability to have effective conversations with employees, especially when they are struggling.

This ability stems from a capacity to self-manage emotions and understand the emotions of others. This is a skill that can be learned and employers are realizing the positive impact of supervisors and managers who are trained to have these effective conversations.

When employees have mental health issues that are affecting them at work, employers have a greater chance of
meeting their responsibilities regarding accommodation if they support managers to be aware, to step back from assumptions and have a calm and hopeful conversation.

While working toward implementing these strategic approaches, employers can consider addressing the basics of accommodating mental health issues.

Consider the workplace culture regarding accommodation. For example, if the culture is such that an employee who has an accommodation is viewed as being weak, not pulling his weight or getting special attention, then other employees may refrain from requesting accommodation, even if they have a disability with legitimate restrictions that entitles accommodation.

An employee may refuse to even engage in the accommodation process for fear of social reprisal by co-workers. Employers can address this through active, positive promotion and ongoing education about accommodation. Managers must also be aware and take action if employees who are being accommodated are being harassed, however mildly, by co-workers.

HR managers can also consider reviewing their accommodation policy and processes through the lens of an employee with a mental health disability — does it require a worker to make an accommodation request before the process begins?

While this is not an issue for an obvious condition, such as a broken leg, when an employee is struggling with a mental health issue and lacks insight or goes through denial, the employer should build the capacity to be able to offer accommodation — even when the employee has not asked for it. The capacity to do this increases when supervisors and managers are in the habit of asking employees: “What do you need to be successful at work?”

Another best practice is to ensure the accommodation discussion is collaborative, with active input from the employee. Consider how to encourage and support him to collaborate within this conversation, which may include other experts. Accommodations that are found when the employee is involved in his development have a much greater chance of lasting success.

These strategies and others can be the beginning or part of an ongoing, higher-level approach to building healthy, fair, productive and thriving organizations by addressing employee mental health strategically.

Kathy Jurgens is national program manager at Mental Health Works, part of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario division, in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 977-5580 ext. 4158 or [email protected]. For more information, visit

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