This is part of a series examining the mental health experience in Canada's workplaces.Take part in our short survey (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey) and add your voice to this important conversation. This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award, which honours companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Winners for 2017 will be announced at a conference in late spring. Sign up to receive an e-mail about registration for 2018 at www.employeerecommended.com.
What are your rights as an employee with a mental health issue in the workplace?
Every employee in Canada has the right to equal treatment in employment and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of actual or perceived disability.
If you come forward with a mental health issue, your employer has a duty to accommodate you, within limits, to support you to work more effectively by overcoming limitations caused by any disabilities. Notice the focus is on how to support you to work. This is different than disability management, where an employee may be away from the workplace getting treatment. Accommodations focus on supporting employees to return to work and helping them get back to where they were at a pace that meets their needs and those of the employer.
It's most helpful when asking an employer for support – to help you manage and get through a mental issue you are experiencing – to have a point of view on what you want and how it will be helpful to you. When in the workplace, you will be accountable to do what you agree to.
The following questions can help you navigate your accommodations:
What does a mental health accommodation typically include?
Examples of mental health accommodations include a flexible work schedule, altering the employee's supervision (perhaps in response to supervisor/employee interactions that exacerbate the employee's disability), modifications of job duties, changing the employee's work environment (for example, taking steps to make the work environment of an employee with ADHD quieter and less distracting), provision of technological aids or modification of training programs to maximize learning outcomes. The idea behind accommodation is to make reasonable adjustments to the disabled employee's job so that they can succeed to the best of their ability.
How do I ask for an accommodation?
Asking your employer for accommodation of a mental disability can be especially difficult. Mental illness is, unfortunately, still stigmatized by some people in society. That said, employment is a source of identity and emotional well-being, and so seeking accommodation is a key step in addressing your disability.
You can approach your employer about accommodation in a variety of ways, but often the process is initiated with a medical note from the worker's family physician or even a confidential discussion with your manager for the purpose of disclosing your disability.
Once you've made the accommodation request, your employer has a duty to obtain sufficient information to understand what is needed so that you can work safely. Since medical certificates sometimes lack important details, a good employer may ask you to take some questions back to your doctor. Keep in mind that human rights law envisions a co-operative accommodation process that both the employer and the employee actively participate in.
What is my role during an accommodation?
Some disabled employees approach the accommodation process with the wrong thought process and treat their employers as enemies. It is important to remember that good accommodation processes thrive on co-operation, and your role includes being co-operative with your employer.
Generally speaking, that means making sure that you seek out and continue medical treatment for your disability, that you see your medical professionals as required, and that you participate in accommodation discussions and plans.
On that note, some disabled employees make the mistake of believing that their employers have to provide a perfect accommodation that meets all of the employees' expectations. The reality is that your employer only has to provide a reasonable accommodation, and so you should be willing to at least try any accommodation plan that your manager proposes, as long as it is not going to jeopardize your health and safety.
What is the employer's role during an accommodation?
Your employer's role in the process also requires co-operation. As I stated previously, obtaining enough medical information to support a safe and effective accommodation is part of the duty, but your employer should also remain open-minded to adjustments if the accommodation plan isn't immediately successful. The law expects your employer to accommodate you to "the point of undue hardship" which, though difficult to define, is certainly an onerous obligation.
How long does an accommodation last?
Accommodations should remain in effect for as long as they are needed. In some cases, the employee's requirement for an accommodation diminishes, in others, the need becomes more acute, and in still others it remains constant. Unless continuation or amendment of a necessary accommodation constitutes an undue hardship for your employer (because it costs too much or is otherwise severely limiting), your accommodation ought to continue throughout your employment.
Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.
Kelly VanBuskirk, Q.C. is a lawyer who works extensively in labour, employment and human rights law.