People often say mental illness is invisible. And while in some cases, people may succeed in hiding their illnesses for a period of time, in most cases, the cover up only lasts so long.
Mental Illness in the Workplace
Mental illness can appear in many different forms in the workplace. Sometimes it’s the employee who starts coming to work late and is sick more often; in other cases, it’s the employee who is brought to tears on a daily basis. But mental illnesses vary, as do the experiences of mental illnesses, so here are some changes to look out for:
- Noticeable changes to physical health
- Changes to eating habits
- Impact on personal appearance
- Sociability (more or less)
- Errors and accidents
- Change in the quality of work
- Changes in punctuality
- Responsiveness to new tasks and familiar tasks
- Inability to take a break
In today’s busy workplaces, people spend less time interacting face to face, change jobs more often, and spend less time with co-workers outside of work hours. As a result, it’s not always easy to see when a person might be struggling.
Your Duty to Your Team
Nevertheless, the law is becoming clearer: Employers have a duty to inquire if an employee displays uncharacteristic behaviour. You’re expected to inquire, and ask follow up questions to see if there is a relationship between the changes you see and a possible underlying health issue, and offer accommodation accordingly.
In other words, you can no longer plead invisibility and say you didn’t see anything. You’re being asked to pay attention, notice and have follow up conversations.
If you fail to make these inquiries and discipline the employee, that discipline can amount to discrimination or a failure to accommodate a disabled employee. This is a breach of the Human Rights Code.
Train Your Team to Notice and Respond
It can be difficult to approach an employee that is displaying uncharacteristic behaviours. For many, it means venturing outside of one’s comfort zone.
The Canadian Mental Health Association offers training to help you have difficult conversations with your staff. The training helps create self-reflective and self-aware leaders who have the tools to engage in meaningful and challenging conversations with employees who are showing uncharacteristic changes. It also includes a larger discussion about the workplace more generally and how we can all work to create psychologically healthier workplaces.
What if the Employee Doesn’t Want to Disclose or Denies the Noted Changes?
There are many factors that will influence an employee’s willingness to discuss what might be personal with you. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the changes; perhaps they feel shame or fear; or perhaps they are struggling to accept their own health condition. CMHA recommends not getting discouraged. It’s important to accept the employee’s response and continue to reach out with care and concern.
What if the Employee Discloses Their Mental Health Issue?
Mental illnesses are disabilities, and disabled people are protected from discrimination in employment. When an employee discloses a mental illness, it provides you an opportunity to discuss accommodations. This is a requirement under the duty to accommodate legislation. This is also a good time to bring in some outside assistance, such as someone from Human Resources.
In all cases, it is also a good idea to connect to an employment lawyer. Good legal advice can help you minimize risks. The right advice will help you understand and navigate your legal duties.
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