According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a common type of depression – often arises when the daylight hours get shorter. While many people experience the winter blues, for some this may be a sign of SAD and may continue for months with minimal relief. As such, during the winter months it is of increased importance that employers ensure that the proper programmes are in place to address mental illness in the workplace.

Statistics

The following statistics highlight the importance of taking steps to deal with mental illness in the workplace:

  • About 20% of the Canadian population will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • Every day, 500,000 Canadians are absent from work due to psychiatric problems.
  • The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated at C$51 billion per year, with C$20 billion of that stemming from workplace losses.
  • According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 30% of short and long-term disability claims in the country are attributed to mental health problems and illnesses.
  • Twenty seven percent of people are fearful of being around people who suffer from serious mental illness.

Benefits

The benefit of addressing mental illness in the workplace and putting in place effective accommodation programmes are twofold:

  • It may lessen the severity of employees' mental illnesses; and
  • It may reduce the economic burden on the company.

This is because having a supportive workplace can often decrease the symptoms felt by employees suffering from mental illnesses and early accommodation of a mental illness may prevent the need for short or long-term disability.

Steps to address mental illness

To address mental illness in the workplace employers should bear in mind the following recommendations:

  • Become informed on the topic. For example, visit the Mental Health Commission website and download information guides or watch webinars such as that on "Psychologically Healthy Workplaces, Trauma and Resilience".
  • Take a zero-tolerance approach to stigma surrounding mental illness. This could be done by senior leaders of the company releasing a statement stating that negative comments, attitudes and stereotypes about mental illnesses or disabilities will not be tolerated.
  • Let people know that mental illness will be treated like any other illness, and that HR and management will work with employees to ensure that legitimate disabilities are reasonably accommodated.
  • Where possible, include people with mental health problems and illnesses in the development of programmes and policies to address mental illness.
  • Draft clear written policies and procedures for dealing with mental illness in the workplace.
  • Train HR professionals and managers to notice the warning the signs of mental illness and to address these signs with employees where reasonable grounds are present to suspect a mental illness.
  • When an employee discloses his or her illness to a manager or HR professional, collect relevant medical information. (The employer is entitled only to necessary medical information – for example, employers generally are not entitled to know the exact diagnosis or treatment plans of the individual.)
  • Where a mental health illness or disability is disclosed and medical information is provided, follow up with specific requests in writing if the medical information is insufficient (eg, if it does not provide the employer with a clear sense of what accommodations are required).
  • Tailor accommodation programmes to the employee's mental illness or disability with feedback from the employee's medical professional. There is no 'standard' accommodation for those with mental health disabilities and illnesses.

Fulfilling the duty to accommodate

In addition to the above, when employers are accommodating mental illness, they must take a proactive approach. This is because employers have both a procedural and a substantive duty to accommodate an employee's mental illness or disability under local provincial human rights legislation.

Therefore, even if the employee is incapable of expressing that he or she needs help and requires accommodation, the duty to accommodate can arise. This means that an employer has a duty to accommodate where the employee exhibits apparent mental health-related problems in the workplace, regardless of whether the employee explicitly reports to the employer that he or she has a mental illness.

For further information on this topic please contact Eowynne Noble at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP by telephone (+1 416 366 8381) or email (enoble@fasken.com). The Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP website can be accessed at www.fasken.com.

This update was reprinted with permission from Northern Exposure, a blog written by lawyers in the labour, employment and human rights group at Fasken Martineau, and produced in conjunction with HRHero.com.

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