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The owner of a mid-sized business, you’re going about your daily routine when you’re approached by one of your most dedicated, hardest-working employees. He wants to speak privately.

As you sit down to talk, you notice this employee is visibly distraught. He proceeds to explain, emotionally and with reservation and difficulty, that he’s experiencing mental health challenges. He thinks he needs time away from the office but has no idea what he’s able to do or where to start. He needs help through this process and asks you what he should do.

As the employer, it’s your duty to facilitate appropriate accommodation that meets the needs of the employee, while adhering to legal requirements.


The impact of mental health and addictions-related disabilities on the work force and economy is staggering. Mental illness is a leading cause of disability claims in Canada. Depression alone costs the Canadian economy at least $32.3-billion in lost productivity per year, while anxiety costs $17.3-billion annually. However, research suggests that up to 25 per cent of disability costs can be avoided.

Before acting to help an employee, it’s important to understand the differences between mental health, mental illness and a mental health concern, as well as the difference between substance misuse and addiction.

Mental health is a person’s psychological or emotional state, based on physical, social and mental factors. Someone can have a mental illness and enjoy excellent mental health, just as someone may not have a mental illness, but suffer poor mental health. For instance, someone who lives with an anxiety disorder may be managing well and experiencing good mental health, while someone dealing with intermittent stress may be in poor mental health while not living with a mental illness.

A mental illness is a disorder of thought, mood or behaviour that has been present for an extended period of time and causes significant distress to an individual. A mental health concern is a deficit in mood that’s distressing but hasn’t been present for an extended period of time.

Substance misuse is considered the harmful use of substances for non-medical purposes and may lead to addiction over time. Addiction is a condition that leads to compulsive engagement with stimuli, despite negative consequences. Addiction may be related to substances like opioids or alcohol, or may be process related, like problem gambling or shopping.


Each province and territory has a disability act that defines what employers must do to support persons with a disability in the workplace. In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA) Act sets an accessible employment standard that requires organizations to make employment practices accessible for everyone.

The AODA outlines six accessibility requirements:

  • The public must be notified that you’ll accommodate the needs of people with disabilities in the hiring process;
  • Workplace information must be provided in an accessible format if an employee requests it;
  • The needs of employees with disabilities must be considered in performance reviews and promotions;
  • Accessibility policies must be communicated with employees;
  • A process for creating accommodation plans in the workplace must be developed;
  • And, a process to support employees absent from work who may require accommodation upon return must be developed.

Businesses under 50 employees are required to complete the first four, while those with 50 or more employees are required to complete all six.

Employers can be held legally accountable for their actions and any breaches of the disability act.


The first step in assisting an employee presenting with a mental health-related problem is to listen. It’s important to show interest in what they’re saying. Ask one question at a time; don’t interrupt; listen carefully; and seek clarification.

From there, collaborating with the employee is key. Don’t impose a solution, instead work together on an accommodation plan. Gather information and assess their needs, write out the plan together, and then implement and monitor the plan. Accommodations for mental health problems may include flexible scheduling, changes in supervision, modifying a workspace, adjusting work duties or implementing new technology.

If an employee needs time away from the workplace, initiate the leave but stay in contact to gather information about their needs, which can inform a return-to-work plan. Accommodations are often incorporated into return-to-work plans to facilitate a gradual and comfortable transition back to work.

If an employee is experiencing a crisis or has expressed that they’re considering suicide, contact your local emergency department, crisis line or 911. The employee should receive intensive support during this time. Maintain regular contact with them through this process to demonstrate support and care about their well-being. Regular contact will more easily facilitate a return to work plan with the employee when the time is right.

For more information on workplace accommodation, Mental Health Works has a great new resource, Mental Health in the Workplace: An Accommodation Guide for Managers and Staff, available for free at

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada.

Camille Quenneville is the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario Division.

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