Accommodation can reduce unemployment

People with mental illness have skills and ‘want to work very badly’

The 20 per cent of Canadians who have, or will experience, a mental illness face many barriers to employment, including gaps in work history, limited employment experience, lack of confidence, fear, anxiety, workplace discrimination and social stigma, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

These barriers have led to high unemployment rates among this population. The rates vary based on the type and severity of the mental health disability, with studies showing a range from 30 per cent to 80 per cent, said Pam Lahey, a community mental health analyst at CMHA Ontario.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there that people with mental illness don’t have the same capacity to work that others do and that perhaps they’re less competent or less skilled,” she said. “All of them, if they want to work and they have the right skills to work, are capable of working if they’re given the right accommodations.”

These accommodations are often of low or no cost to the employer, said Lahey. They can range from flexible hours to attend doctors’ appointments or work when they’re at their most productive (earlier or later in the day, depending on medication) to being given written instructions instead of verbal ones.

But employers should never make assumptions about accommodations. Instead, managers should ask workers what can be done to help them be more successful in the workplace, she said.

“The person with the mental illness knows what they need better than anybody,” she said.

Starting a new job is stressful for anyone, but especially for people with a mental illness, said Lahey, so employers should spend time showing the employee around the workplace, introducing her to colleagues and creating a welcoming, open-door policy. This extra effort will pay off for the employer, she said.

“When somebody with a disability, whether it’s mental health or otherwise, is given the chance to do a job, they’re more likely to stay on with that employer because they have a sense of loyalty,” said Lahey.

The CMHA program Routes to Work helps people with psychiatric disabilities enter or return to the workforce. There are employment support workers at seven CMHA sites across the country — two in British Columbia, plus locations in Alberta, Saskatoon, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The support workers assess an individual’s needs and employment goals to help her find the right employer and job, said Julie Flatt, project manager of Routes to Work. Once the individual is employed, the support workers continue to provide support to the individual and the employer.

“The employer can feel free to call anytime if they see the person is in some sort of distress or potential distress. They can liaise with the employment support worker to see how best they can intercede and see if there’s something they can change on the job,” said Flatt.

About 200 people take part in Routes to Work every year and at least one-half of them find employment, ranging from dishwashers to personal support workers, said Flatt.

Over the 10 years the program has been in existence, with funding from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the feedback from employers has been positive and many of them come back to Routes to Work to fill other job openings, said Flatt.

“People with psychiatric disabilities want to work very badly. Most of them are super hard workers because they have such high expectations of themselves,” she said

For many psychiatric diagnoses, too much stress or anxiety will cause a relapse, said Suzanne Lane, program assistant at Vancouver-based Gastown Vocational Services, which offers various vocational programs to people with mental health disabilities.

To prevent that relapse, support workers at Gastown Vocational Services help clients figure out what causes the stress and how to adapt.

“By talking with the client and figuring out what are their triggers on stress and trying to minimize that in the workplace, that can prevent any problems from happening,” said Lane.

Some ways of coping include shorter, more frequent breaks or mental health days, she said.

Two programs at Toronto’s George Brown College were created, in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), to help people with mental health or addiction issues gain valuable job and life skills.

Participants can build on the programs to become full cooks or skilled construction tradespeople but often they need the time in an entry-level job to “stabilize,” said Rolf Priesnitz, director of apprenticeship programs at the college.

“The idea is to get them stable and get them some work that is meaningful and doesn’t put too much stress on them so they don’t regress,” he said. “We don’t want to overwhelm them.”

The programs focus on job skills as well as life skills, such as conflict resolution and personality dimensions.

“We focus on the skills they’ve acquired. We don’t ask for ‘pity’ jobs,” said Tony Priolo, manager of augmented education programs at George Brown.

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