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Addressing Mental Illness at Work

Everyone saw the explosion of commercials for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign last month, and the efforts behind it are unquestionably commendable. But for all the attention paid to the subject of mental illness, it might still not feel like enough for a suffering employee wrestling with whether to tell her boss about her condition.

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One in five Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. Given that we spend a quarter of our adult existence in the workplace, the employment connection is unavoidable. Indeed, mental illness causes more lost work days than any other chronic condition (82% of long-term disability claims in Canada are related to it), and costs the Canadian economy some $51 billion annually in lost productivity.

Some other stats on depression and the workplace, courtesy of Statistics Canada:

  • employees who consider most of their days to be quite a bit or extremely stressful are over three times more likely to suffer a major depressive episode than those who report low levels of general stress;
  • Canadians with depression report that they function at just 62% of their capacity on the job;
  • 70% of Canadians have had to leave their work for short-term or long-term disability, or permanently.

On the employer side, there’s some expectation and precedent. Employers have a moral duty to support the needs of their staff and so are charged with meeting a raft of obligations to promote mental wellness and safety in the workplace.

But for the folks on the other end of the equation, the protocol isn’t so clear.

Certainly the Supreme Court of Canada says employees are as obligated as their employers to accommodate their own mental health conditions in the workplace. This means coming clean with their superiors (“preferably in writing,” says a recently convened Ontario Human Rights Tribunal) about any conditions that might affect their judgment or ability to perform their job.

Letting your superiors know you’re suffering might seem daunting, particularly given the residual stigma that sticks to this subject, but doing so can deliver relief to feelings of isolation and possibly redirect assumptions about why someone isn’t being productive.

Some tips on seeing it through:

  • Book a meeting with your supervisor in a quiet place.
  • Bring along a doctor’s note, especially if you’re requesting on-the-job accommodations.
  • Be clear about what you need, and offer some practical suggestions for seeing it through.
  • Use language like “disorder,” “medical condition” or “mental illness” rather than “problem” or “issue.”
  • Check in with your EAP or HR department beforehand, in case you find you need their support.

And for the 78% of Canadians worried they’ll lose their job if they reveal their mental illness, well, that’s illegal. With the exception of certain safety-sensitive industries, Canadian employers are not allowed to discipline, demote, dismiss or otherwise discriminate against employees with illnesses or disabilities, and they must attempt to accommodate them instead.

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