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When mental health issues arise at work, what should employers do?

As a boss, what do you do if your administrative assistant is clinically depressed? Give yourself a second to think about it. What would you say? And how would you say it, now that reports are piling up and she’s still on...


As a boss, what do you do if your administrative assistant is clinically depressed? Give yourself a second to think about it. What would you say? And how would you say it, now that reports are piling up and she’s still on YouTube? You still haven’t talked to her about it because you’re afraid you’ll make a bad situation even worse, like last year when Jane came in drunk.

It’s suddenly the collision of worlds — when our complex lives outside the office impact our work, a place where we’re often supposed to be workers first and foremost, real people with real problems second.

According to a study from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, one in five Canadians will experience mental illness. The same study reports that mental health issues in the workplace cost Canadian companies upwards of $33 billion per year due to lost productivity.

Supervisors, bosses, managers, etc. — just as much as the depressed administrative assistant — need to know their rights.

“The employers think they’re powerless. It elicits fear in them, and they don’t act,” says Krista Hiddema, co-founder of e2Rsolutions, and a partner at law firm Woolgar VanWiechen Ketcheson Ducoffe LLP.

Hiddema has some 100 disability cases on her desk at any given time. Each one is unique, and each comes with the devil in the details, she says. Many of those details will come to light at Allstream Centre in Toronto when she eagerly joins at least five other experienced speakers on March 26, 2013 at EcoLog Legislation’s one-day seminar, Building a Mentally Healthy Workplace.

Let’s get back to our depressed administrative assistant for a moment. Usually a beacon of cheerfulness, she’s recently stopped showing up for morning coffee chats. At least three times — that you saw — she’s fled her desk in tears to the bathroom. If you don’t talk to her at all, the company could be held accountable later. It’s called “constructive knowledge”, Hiddema says. The employer needs to document that he or she at least attempted to intervene and help the employee.

This pre-emptive measure helps to protect the company against any future escalation. Whether the employee wants to be helped is another question altogether; the employer simply has an obligation to act when an employee exhibits warning signs. 

Depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse are some of the more common mental health issues in the workplace. Most of us have seen at least one firsthand. Some employers may be surprised to learn that under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (better known as DSM-IV), addiction can be considered a mental illness.

“People who are concerned about other people’s addictions often don’t know how to deal with them,” explains Penny Lawson, clinical manager of the Family Program and Process Addictions section of Bellwood Health Services. “It’s also rare to find anyone with just one addiction anymore.”

Lawson — a scheduled speaker for the Building a Mentally Healthy Workplace seminar — talks about the need to develop “receivable” language and express human emotion and personal concern, not just facts, when tackling workplace issues. She intends to create role-playing scenarios to help seminar attendees understand how to talk to employees.

Other notable speakers for the Building a Mentally Healthy Workplace seminar include Paula Allen, VP of Health Solutions at Morneau Shepell, who plans to address mental health policy, planning and implementation; and Heenan Blaikie LLP Associate Shane Todd, who will speak about the legal aspects of accommodating mental illness in the workplace. (Click here for the full list of seminar speakers.)

It’s important for employers to understand that employees can report workplace issues to the provincial human rights body, reminds Hiddema. In this technological age, many employees also won’t be shy to vent online if a company failed to accommodate their situation.

“It could dramatically limit your companies’ ability to draw talent if people are Googling your company and learning that you think employees don’t have a life outside work,” says Hiddema.

Hiddema and Lawson have some 50 years of experience between them.

For more information about the upcoming seminar, click here.


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1 Comment » for When mental health issues arise at work, what should employers do?
  1. Joe says:

    I have been off work now since Oct. 2010. I suffer from major depression and have really bad anxiety issues. I lock myself up most of the day, afraid to go out in the world. I am also being treated for ADD. I have hypothyroidism, and severe hypertension. I also have arthritis in my ankles and have been battling plantar fasciitis in both feet for several years. I receive disability payments from my insurance provider since the time I have been off. I have been cut off once. But because you can’t really see this illness,like a broken leg, people feel that it is not real. Companies have no idea how to handle this. They try to change the subject when you want to talk about it. My company is only dealing with the physical side of this. They want to talk to me about my physical abilities, which in my opinion and my medical teams opinion is secondary.My company has been good to me the entire time I have worked for them. But there is no education for managers on mental illness. I have gone to see the insurance companies Psychiatrist and he agreed with my medical team that I am not suitably fit to go back to work at present. Tomorrow I am meeting with my HR person to talk about what I would be able to do. But at the present time I don’t feel that I’m ready for this.I have also been batting with insomnia for the past few years. I’m 50 years old and had been doing the same job for almost 30 years. And now I face the possibility of starting all over again. All of these factors make my illness that much worse. I get upset very easily and sometimes violent. When I speak sometimes I feel like someone else is speaking. I have never harmed another human being. But feel like a different person some days. In the first months of my illness I couldn’t look in the mirror because I was afraid of the person that I saw. It was like looking at a stranger.How can I make people understand this when they think it is nothing. Thoughts of suicide run through my head on a daily basis. I’ve even made a list of ways to do it. When I get these thoughts I do things to try and chase them away. It often works and if it doesn’t I walk around all day feeling very sad.Some days it is hard on my wife. But I always tell her to live her life. She is a very strong woman and I am very lucky to have her in my life. She’s my reason for living. but as I said before people need more education on this subject because it is becoming a world wide epidemic. The healthcare system is very hard to get into where I live. It’s a small rural community but it serves a vast area. It took me 2 years to really get a strong medical team together, which I am thankful for every day. I have my MD, a psychologist for talk therapy, a very good psychiatrist,and an excellent Occupational Therapist. We need to get people together to learn more about this. But how do we do it? I wish there was a way to help people get through this because I’ve had to jump so many hurdles to get where I am now. I still wake up every morning wondering is this the last day but I always get flashes of my family and good friends and how many lives could be destroyed if I make a bad decision. Good people with mental health issues are not getting the proper help they need. Something has to change!

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