There is growing understanding of the need to accommodate mental health issues in the workplace, not only due to human rights obligations but also to optimize employee productivity. However, the boundaries of employers’ obligations from a human rights perspective are not always clear. This article focuses on stress-related accommodation requests: is an employer obliged to accommodate an employee having difficulty coping with stress? While the answer is generally no, recent exceptions to this rule in the case law confirm the importance of treating stress-related accommodation requests seriously.
Does Stress Trigger a Duty to Accommodate?
Human rights legislation in the Atlantic Provinces provides no explicit protection for “stress”. However, physical and mental disabilities are prohibited grounds of discrimination which trigger an employer’s duty to accommodate. The critical question, then, is whether and when “stress” constitutes a disability so as to require accommodation.
The case law confirms that if stress (and related symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, etc) reach a degree of severity and permanence as to interfere with the employee’s ability to function at work or to perform certain job duties, it can be characterized as a disability requiring accommodation. However, limits are imposed to make this characterization the exception rather than the rule. The bare assertion that stress is affecting one’s ability to function at work is not sufficient. Similarly, an employee with an aversion to specific job tasks, even if strong enough to negatively affect his or her health, is not enough to constitute a disability. Rather, clear medical documentation demonstrating that the employee is physically and/or psychologically unable to perform some or all work-related tasks will almost always be needed before he or she is entitled to accommodation for stress-related symptoms.
The following tips can help manage employee requests for accommodation of stress-related illnesses:
- Treat stress-related accommodation requests seriously and with sensitivity: Be conscious of skepticism and stigma associated with stress-related illnesses. Stress-related requests for accommodation should not be dismissed off-hand. Normal procedures should be followed (request for medical documentation, etc) to ensure each request is considered on its own merits.
- Be attentive to signals an employee is having difficulty coping with stress: Changes in employee performance, impatience, irritability, heightened interpersonal conflict, attendance problems, frequent reports of headaches, indigestion, fatigue, insomnia or non-specific illness, or an employee dropping hints about stress levels, should not be ignored. While employers are not required to diagnose employee health problems, a failure to investigate obvious signs of stress-related illness, particularly prior to disciplining an employee, could result in a human rights complaint.
- Request medical documentation: As with any request for accommodation, the employer must understand the nature of the employee’s limitations. In stress-related cases, medical evidence is essential to establish that stress-related symptoms reach the threshold of a disability.
- Consider preliminary motions to dismiss a human rights complaint: Despite recognition that stress can, in some instances, constitute a disability, such instances remain the exception rather than the rule. If faced with a human rights complaint for failure to accommodate stress, consider whether there is any medical evidence supporting the inability to perform job tasks due to stress-related symptoms. If not, it may be appropriate to seek early dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that it cannot succeed.