A tough but important question: ‘How are you doing?’

Employers shouldn’t be afraid of checking on the mental health of employees, particularly in the wake of the pandemic

A tough but important question: ‘How are you doing?’

How are you? No, really, how are you?

The pandemic has been a long slog during which people have been separated from most of the people in their lives. Unsurprisingly, this has had an effect on the mental health of people.

Even before the pandemic, mental health issues for employees were becoming more prominent for employers and their HR departments. And now with the pandemic and workers facing even more stress, that question is something that employers should really be thinking about.

One recent survey found that 43 per cent of workers are more burned out from work than they were a year ago. In another, 45 per cent of Canadians have either taken steps to improve their mental health or would like to. However, for those who haven’t yet taken steps but want to, the top reasons that they haven’t are affordability, uncertainty about the proper care for their needs, and having no time. These are all issues which can be addressed through support from employers.

A challenging issue for employers

However, it’s not an easy area for employers to address with their staff. Although things are improving, mental health issues carry a stigma for many, whether it’s employers not knowing — or wanting to know — if employees are having problems, or employees feeling like they can’t or don’t want to reveal them. Of course, it’s an employee’s right to keep issues like that private, but if poor mental health is affecting their work performance or work environment, what’s an employer to do?

Employers should adopt a proactive approach to accommodating employee mental illness, says a mental health expert.

According to a U.S. study, most organizations say mental health is a key element of their employee wellness strategy, but only one out of four had assessed the value employees received from their current benefits in the past year and the same proportion have mental health measures integrated into leadership decision-making. One reason for this may be the reluctance and discomfort when it comes to discussing it, which can be helped by encouraging more open discussion about mental health within an organization.

Boosting productivity and workplace culture aren’t the only reasons employers should actively support the mental health of employees. There are also liability issues that could arise if an employee has a mental health-related disability and the employer fails to accommodate.

Mental disability is a ground of discrimination protected under human rights legislation, so employers have to take care that any discipline or dismissal is related to an employee’s mental disability. In addition, if an employee discloses such a disability, the employer has a duty to assess possible accommodation to the point of undue hardship.

Even if an employee doesn’t disclose a mental disability — which is very possible given privacy issues and the aforementioned stigma, not to mention that sometimes people suffering from mental health issues can feel isolated — if there is any way an employer ought to reasonably be aware of it, the duty to inquire whether accommodation is necessary applies. A sudden drop in productivity or quality of work, isolation from co-workers, an increase in sick days, or breakdowns at work are examples of things that could tip an employer off that there’s an issue. It’s important to train managers and supervisors on identifying mental illness in the workplace so that there’s a better chance of providing support for someone who needs it.

Addressing mental health is an important part of disability management, according to the CEO of a third-party benefits administrator.

Accommodation has limits

As with physical disabilities, mental disabilities must be accommodated to the point of undue hardship, but not beyond. For example, a few years ago a British Columbia coroner suffered from PTSD following a particularly brutal crime scene. The coroner’s symptoms were triggered by seeing dead bodies. When psychotherapy failed to improve things, the coroners service said it couldn’t accommodate him. The coroner filed a human rights complaint saying the employer failed to consider reasonable alternatives for accommodation.

However, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal fond that dealing with death and working with dead bodies was a reasonable standards to expect for a coroner and trying to accommodate him with work not involving cadavers would be undue hardship for the employer: see Thanh v. BC Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, 2020 BCHRT 15.

It may not always be easy to support employees with mental health issues, but making the attempt can help a business and reduce legal liability. It’s not a bad idea to check in with employees, even if it’s just a simple, “How are you?”

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