Employer Advice on Supporting Staff with Mental Health Issues

  • Employee wellbeing
Employer Advice on Supporting Staff with Mental Health Issues
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

According to a report, one in three Canadians struggles with their mental health.

The report is hardly surprising. Since the pandemic, people have suffered personal loss and experienced financial difficulties, with prolonged isolation and uncertainty leading to an increase in depression, anxiety, addictions, and thoughts of self-harm.

Even before the pandemic, though, mental health was a major concern, with one in five Canadians expected to experience a mental health problem in any given year.

Besides personal suffering, unaddressed mental health concerns are also bad for your business, leading to absenteeism, turnover, and burnout, which can impact productivity and your bottom line. It is important that you reach out to staff who may be struggling with poor mental health.

What should I do if an employee informs me about their mental health issue?

If an employee discloses their mental health issue or illness and requests for accommodation, you are obliged to accommodate that employee to the point of undue hardship. You must also keep the information strictly confidential unless withholding it puts the employee or others in imminent danger. You must also inform your employee of available mental health support and resources, such as your company’s employee assistance program (EAP).

Under human rights law, employers must not discriminate against their employees based on any protected ground. Disability is a protected ground and includes mental health issues (OntarioAlbertaBritish Columbia).

You must not discriminate against an employee due to a mental health issue or illness. Discriminatory acts include termination, harassment, denial of job opportunities, or promotions.

What is the difference between a mental illness and a mental health concern?

The Canadian Mental Health Association defines mental illness as a “diagnosed disorder of thought, mood, or behaviour that has been present for an extended period of time (is not transient) and causes significant distress to the individual”.

A mental health concern is “a concern held by the individual due to a perceived deficit in mood or thought that is distressing but has not necessarily been present for an extended period”.

To put it simply, it’s the difference between having a diagnosed anxiety disorder and experiencing temporary anxiety due to “situational stress” such as caused by the current pandemic.

It is possible to have good mental health and be productive despite a mental illness if one gets help and learns to manage it well.

How should I approach an employee who may be struggling with poor mental health or a mental illness?

If you notice or suspect that a mental health problem is affecting an employee’s behaviour and work performance, you should reach out to the employee.

Common signs of strain may be irritability, visible stress, increased absenteeism, and lower productivity.

We recommend that you:

Talk to your employee

Focus the discussion on the performance or productivity issue. Start with examples of their past good work to put them at ease. Cite specific instances of current poor output or behaviour that is causing concern.

Assure your employee that any information they disclose to you would be confidential. Let your employee know about the possibility of accommodation.

Listen for understanding

This means having a conversation to understand the perspective of the other person. You can do so by showing interest in what they are saying, asking relevant questions, letting them speak and not interrupting.

In case the discussion does lead to the worker disclosing a mental health issue, do not try to diagnose or pry for details or deliver a pep talk. Under privacy law, your employee has a right not to disclose medical information.

Be objective in the manner you document the meeting. Focus on solutions and how you can accommodate them and provide a supportive work environment.

Connect your employee to available mental health resources

Besides charting out a plan to accommodate the employee’s needs in the workplace, you should also remind the employee to access the company’s Employee Assistance Program (if you offer one). Or you could guide them to available community services.

Schedule a future meeting to review their performance

Follow up with the employee to assess the impact of the steps taken on their performance and general well-being.

What other best practices should I follow to create awareness about good mental health in my workplace?

We advise that you:

Educate your staff

There is still a stigma associated with mental health problems due to which employees may hesitate to reach out or seek help.

Make sure you educate your staff on mental health concerns. You could invite ­­an expert to give a talk on the subject via Zoom. Better still, you could provide online training to your staff, especially managers.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) offers free courses to this end. It also runs a Mental Health First Aid program to improve mental health literacy and teach skills to better manage potential mental health problems.

MHCC has also developed a framework called the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. It is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools, and resources to help employers promote mental health and prevent psychological harm at work.

If the mental health challenges created in your workplace are due to the COVID-19 pandemic, let your staff know of the free mental health resources provided by the federal and provincial governments (OntarioAlberta, and British Columbia).

Develop a mental health policy for your workplace

A clear and comprehensive policy will guide your employees and your supervisors on the next steps when an employee makes a mental health disclosure and requests accommodation.

It is important that your supervisors are trained on how to sensitively manage such requests.

A well-written policy that is included in your employee handbook and shared with your staff will reinforce your company’s commitment to creating a nurturing and inclusive workplace.

Do you need help creating a mental health policy?

Our experts can help you develop company policies as well as with any other HRhealth and safety, or employment advice you may need. See how we have helped other small and medium businesses get their business compliant with provincial legislation.

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