The statistics pertaining to mental health issues in the workplace are staggering. The Canadian Mental Health Association has published mental health and addiction statistics which indicate that 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in any given year and in any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental illness. They have also reported that mental illness is a leading cause of disability, with 30% of disability claims relating to mental health issues and 70% of disability costs relating to mental illness.

With this in mind, how can employers address mental illness in the workplace? From my perspective, there are 5 key areas upon which management/ HR should focus:

  1. Prevention and Promotion

Managers should understand their organizational needs and identify potential and existing issues. There should also be development of prevention and management strategies for psychological health or safety issues in the workplace. The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests on its website that a Healthy Workplace Committee should be created in each workplace in order to create and implement a healthy workplace plan that reflects the needs of the whole staff within the organization and takes into consideration the structure and culture of the workplace.

  1. Staff Education

Managers should ensure that education is provided on the realities of mental illness in order to remove the stigma associated therewith. Employees can be taught that mental health coping strategies are strained by stress, burnout, conflict, or life events. Education can take place by way of posters, articles, newsletters, lunch and learns, health fairs or other creative avenues in the workplace.

  1. Manager Training to Identify and Address Workplace Mental Health Issues

Managers should also obtain training so that they can:

  • effectively recognize and manage mental health-related issues in the workplace;
  • learn the principles and practicalities of managing issues related to employee mental health in the workplace including appropriate communication strategies; and
  • learn how to manage conflict, how to deal with performance issues, and how to deal with returning to work issues.
  1. Early intervention

Managers should ensure that the organization has both prevention mechanisms and crisis response systems in place. Managers should ensure their employees are aware of mental health resources (ie. human resources, Occupational Health & Safety, EAP, and other community resources) both from a prevention and crisis response perspective.

  1. Accommodation

Organizations have the duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship in Ontario. As a result, there needs to be a focus not only on permitting leaves of absence related to mental illness, but also on an appropriate return to work process and the techniques that can be implemented to accommodate various mental illness restrictions. For example: an organization can consider modifying communication and supervision methods by providing clear written (as opposed to verbal) instructions and feedback. An organization could also consider accommodating environmental needs by making modifications to the physical environment such as reducing or eliminating noise, lighting, or scents. Furthermore accommodation can apply to flexibility in job scheduling and duties, including a graduated return to work if the employee has been on sick leave, modifying start or end times in order to help with the effects of medication, energy levels, or the need to be absent for medical appointments

Dealing with mental health issues presents a unique and complicated challenge for employers.