Mental health in the workplace: Your duty is to inquire (and accommodate)

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Want to learn more about your duty to accommodate? We partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division on January 19 for a free webinar where we explored this topic in more detail. Click here to watch the recording.

Although some of us like to complain about it, work represents an important part of our daily lives. It is an important factor in protecting and maintaining our mental health. It gives us financial security, but it also fulfills our needs for social contact, routine, meaning, identity and often helps us maintain activity.

When people feel like they aren’t able to perform their job to the best of their abilities they often experience a feeling of insecurity or fear. When there is an underlying mental health illness, it’s important for employers to have the skills to have open and supportive conversations so both sides can move toward the shared goal of accomplishment.

In the nonprofit sector, much like other areas, a desire to do the right thing doesn’t always translate into the right skills to have supportive conversations with employees.

How to have difficult conversations

If you are seeing a change in performance or behaviour at work, it’s important to inquire about the cause of these changes. Before setting up a time to chat with the employee, it’s important to step back from assumptions and judgments and to start to consider (even write down) the changes you are noticing.

Finding a space and time to have the conversation is also an important part of setting the stage. Try not to be rushed or to approach an employee in a public setting.

Rather than starting with what you think might be going on, describe the changes you are seeing. Let the employee know you are wondering if everything is okay and then stop talking so you can really listen to what they have to say.

Before leaving the conversation, it’s important to ask the employee what you can do to help them be successful at work. Be sure to have the information on hand about your psychological benefits or employee assistance program so you are prepared. If you don’t have the information at your fingertips, follow through on your commitment to find out more.

It may be a difficult conversation but it’s an important one and may save you legal costs or even disability premium costs down the road. More importantly, it might be the first step in helping an employee stay at work, perhaps with a few small accommodations.

Unfortunately, these conversations are not always commonplace. Instead, employees often face their struggles alone, heading to their doctor when things get particularly bad. Although the supervisor may have noticed changes, they may have ignored them or passed them off as a bad attitude.

The supervisor may only learn of an underlying health concern (physical or mental) by way of a doctor’s note identifying the need for a medical leave of absence.

Returning to work

When the employee, the doctor and the disability provider determine the employee is fit to begin to return to work, employers start the process of accommodation.

It is important to focus equally on the strengths and limitations of the employee as they transition back into the workplace. Rather than focusing on the diagnosis, the conversation needs to focus on how to make adjustments to account for any limitations, and how to create a process of continuous communication so the role can evolve as the employee gains capacity.

For employers, when it comes to permanent accommodations, it is recommended to access legal advice.

Facilitating a successful return to work

Here are some times to help employees get back to work safely and effectively:

  1. Ask the employee what they need
  2. Limit to 1-3 short term goals
  3. Provide constant feedback and positive reinforcement and set up times to touch base regularly
  4. Incrementally increase the goals during these meetings
  5. Encourage open and ongoing communication outside of these meetings
  6. Plan how to respond to a relapse
  7. Consider co-workers and what the employee may want them to know about why they were off work and any limitations regarding a return to normal duties

For more information on this topic, click here.

To learn more about accommodation, and its limitations (undue hardship), watch the Canadian Mental Health Association’s recorded webinar, hosted by CharityVillage, on Mental Health and the Workplace: A Focus on Accommodation.

Julia Kaisla is the Director of Community Engagement for the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division. While her more formal role with CMHA BC involves overseeing workplace initiatives, public relations and branch relations, she spends her days writing and working with people. She is passionate about making a difference and is committed to promotion of mental health in Canada. She is a trained Mental Health Works facilitator, and has a graduate degree in Conflict Analysis.

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