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[HR] Promoting Mental Health In The Workplace

Mental illness has long been a taboo subject in our society and our workplaces. People with mental health disabilities and addictions may be exposed to stereotypes based on irrational fear, leading to experiences of stigma. They may also experience systemic barriers to accessing employment. Employees may find themselves isolated and marginalized in the workplace – impacts that may be made worse by other human rights-related barriers such as racism, sexism, ageism or homophobia.

The Human Rights Code protects employees from discrimination with respect to being terminated, denied a job or a promotion because of a mental health disability or addiction. Employees are also protected from harassment in their employment. Some persons with mental health disabilities and addictions may need accommodation so they can equally benefit from and have access to workplace services and employment opportunities. Usually the accommodation process starts with the person asking for help. However, because of the nature of the disability, a person with a mental health disability or addiction may be unable to ask for assistance. Where an employer, thinks that someone has a mental health disability or addiction and needs help, there is still a duty to accommodate that person.

Organizations also have a duty to design their services, policies and processes with the needs of people with mental health disabilities and addictions in mind. This way, people with disabilities are able to fully integrate into all aspects of society. This is called “inclusive design.”

Accommodation is a shared responsibility. Everyone involved, including the person seeking accommodation, should cooperate, share information and look for solutions together. Many accommodations can be made easily and at little cost. Here are some examples of accommodation:

  • Increased flexibility in work hours or work leave.
  • Finding out about an employee’s personal support system, and calling a support person if the employee experiences a crisis.
  • Facilitating an employee’s access to an addictions program and allowing the person time off to attend.
  • Getting information about community resources and supports for the employee.
  • Depending on the circumstances, job restructuring, retraining or assignment to an alternative position within the organization.

How to monitor? When to act? What to do?

There is frequent frustration from an employer’s perspective due to a labyrinth of privacy laws and human rights barriers, employers have become reluctant or sometimes unable to ascertain the mental health of their employees, including those that they suspect of being unstable. But after the news that a Germanwings co-pilot thought to have deliberately crashed the plane he was flying into a mountainside had been treated for a severe mental illness, and that the airline may now have significant liability toward the families of the passengers, many Canadian employers are beginning to reconsider the boundaries.

But there are instances where employers are not even aware of an employee’s disability or illness to begin with. Not all mental health conditions are easily detected or treated, and many employees may not even recognize their own conditions. Worse, given the stigma associated with mental illness, some employees may be reluctant to seek treatment or even take steps to conceal their difficulties. However, this may not absolve employers from legal exposure in the event of an incident of negligence, violence or worse.

So how are employers supposed to address these issues in the workplace and what steps can they take to ensure the safety of co-workers, customers and the employees themselves?

  • Employers have a duty to accommodate mental disability.
  • Duty to disclose – The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that employees share in the obligation to accommodate their own mental health conditions in the workplace. This means that employees are equally responsible to make employers aware of any conditions that affect their judgment or ability to properly perform their job. In a recent case, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal took this one step further, stating that employees are required to “advise the employer of the disability” and “make her or his needs known to the best of his or her ability, preferably in writing.”
  • Duty to inquire – Employers cannot turn a blind eye in situations where there is a basis to believe an employee is suffering from a mental condition that may be affecting his or her health. Although not the same as a law, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a policy last year stating that employers should intervene in situations when an employee is clearly unwell or perceived as having a mental health concern.
  • Duty to prevent harm – Occupational health and safety legislation across Canada imposes positive obligations on employers to provide a safe working environment for their employees. This means that employers have to take every reasonable precaution in the circumstances to protect their employees. In certain circumstances, this duty may allow employers to remove employees who are suspected of suffering from a mental illness that could cause harm to themselves or others or even to prevent employees from entering the workplace without specific medical clearance if they are believed to pose a danger.
  • Prevention & Effective Treatment – Ignorance is no longer bliss. Employers now have a potential method of identifying risks, and effective treatment options for their employees who may be affected. To learn more on this topic, visit Personalized Prescribing for their white paper on mental health, additional tools and resources. (http://www.personalizedprescribing.com)

Some Common-Sense Suggestions

Some practical steps employers take to deal with the safety implications of an employee suspected of concealing a mental illness are:

  • Communicate and advise of benefits and EFAP options – Many employees have no idea that their employer benefits plan contains a component for EAP/EFAP that can effectively be a first step to seeking confidential guidance and counselling for treating mental health issues. Ensure that you are communicating and promoting these services to all your employees on a periodic basis. Ensure that employees have access to and are aware of how to apply for these company-sponsored health benefits, disability insurance, employee assistance and wellness programs.
  • Provide informal options – Employers can make confidential reporting processes available to employees who want to discreetly disclose medical information and they can communicate these to all employees on a periodic basis. it’s a good idea to couple this with the point above.
  • Assess risk – Employers should continuously assess possible risk and take note of unusual behavior. If an employee is acting out of the ordinary, employers have an obligation to make reasonable inquiries in an attempt to provide accommodation.
  • Be prepared to take action – Managers and leaders should be trained on an action plan to swiftly deal with any negative implications from the suspected concealment of mental health issues in the workplace, especially in safety-sensitive positions. The plan should address the possible isolation or removal of an employee from the workplace in situations where there is a real risk posed to the employee or others.
  • Hold a periodic Mental Health & Wellness awareness week with activities like:
    • Distribute a quick-read fact sheet with information, tips and resources.
    • Organize a lunch-and-learn. Ask your local Canadian Mental Health Association branch to provide or recommend a speaker.
    • Use a quick 7-10 question quiz to start a discussion with supervisors and managers about workplace mental health. This and other resources are available free of charge from some of the website resources included in this blog.
    • Schedule a read through of the CSA/BNQ standard Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace with your JHSC. The standard contains systematic guidelines to help workplaces create and sustain a psychologically safe and healthy work environment. Downloadable at no cost.

Some key links to additional information and guidance on this topic:

Working Through IT Video Resources for Mental Health Awareness: http://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/wti/Section10Page.aspx