Mental Illness in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

Fostering a safe, healthy environment that prioritizes wellbeing is important for every business. When your workplace is psychologically healthy, your people are productive, contributing members of the team. However, in Canadian society, mental health is a growing issue: approximately one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime[1]. What do you, as an employer, need to know?

The Impact of Mental Illness in the Workplace

Thirty-three percent of all workplace disability claims are related to mental illness, and in any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work because of mental health problems.[2] Absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover cost employers more than $6 billion per year.[3] The impact on businesses — and employees — is strikingly clear.

There are two primary pieces of legislation that address your obligation to provide a psychologically safe workplace:

Occupational Health and Safety Act (2008).

OSHA requires employers to have policies and processes in place to address situations in which employees experience harassment and bullying.

Harassment and bullying play an increasing role in mental health issues. Often, though, there is not a quick and full response when employees come forward. Nothing is done, and the situation festers. Policies and processes are essential; but they are only as effective as their implementation.

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to deliver a safe workplace for all employees. You must be aware of your responsibilities and develop effective systems to respond as issues arise. Ensuring all employees have adequate health and safety training, including harassment and bullying education, is a must: those responsible for implementing the policies need targeted training so they can respond in a robust manner.

Ontario Human Rights Code.

This legislation protects people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace and from adverse consequences as a result of their disabilities.

Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, if you see behaviours in an individual that could be the result of an underlying mental health issue, you cannot ignore the possibility. It is your duty to ask questions and to accommodate for this employee’s condition — rather than immediately moving to discipline or dismiss them.

Lane v. AGDA

In the high profile 2008 case, Lane v. ADGA Group Consultants, the complainant was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He disclosed his illness to his supervisor at the end of his first week of work and provided information on triggers, manic symptoms, and how best to respond. He requested that his doctor or wife be notified if he were displaying manic systems.

The response from his employer was one of concern, because of the stressful nature of the job, and the employee sensed “apprehension.” In the next few days, he began to exhibit “pre-manic” symptoms. Management met with him and terminated him.

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal determined the complainant had been discriminated against because of his illness and awarded general damages of $35,000, $10,000 in damages for mental anguish, and special damages of $34,278.75.[4]

The decision reinforced employers’ responsibility in situations regarding mental health. They need to make “meaningful inquiries,” explore whether behaviour is tied to a medical condition, and seek to provide reasonable accommodations rather than move to dismiss.

Don’t Sweep Mental Health Issues Under the Rug

In the Lane case, the employer knew the complainant had a mental illness. In other cases, they may suspect. For example, you may notice that an employee has alcohol on his/her breath. They miss Fridays and Mondays with some regularity, and coworkers are coming to you with concerns.

You can discipline for absenteeism, but you have a further obligation to inquire whether these behaviours are caused by an underlying issue. If they are, and if they need help, your responsibility is to support your employee in obtaining appropriate treatment, securing short term disability, or otherwise addressing the issues.

Maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace is not only a legal obligation – it can also create a more productive work environment by helping to reduce stress-related absences, and encouraging effective responses where issues arise and accommodations may be necessary.






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About Melanie Reist

Melanie Reist has over 30 years of employment law expertise.

With her strong employment law background, Melanie is also an effective mediator who can assist parties in resolving workplace conflicts as well as disputes which have gone to litigation.

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