Invisible Barriers: Accommodating Mental Illness in the Workplace

Accommodating Mental Illness in the Workplace
Labour Relations

 Accommodating Mental Illness in the WorkplaceMental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada.(1) In fact, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are not able to work due to mental health problems in any given week.(2) Twenty percent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and it is likely that all of us will be directly or indirectly impacted by mental illness through family members, friends or colleagues.(3) As Canadians and medical professionals increase awareness and understanding regarding mental illness, our workplace and human rights laws similarly evolve in attempts to protect mental illnesses like any other disability. While our laws strive to provide adequate workplace protections in relation to mental illness, the art of managing mental health accommodations remains challenging for employers and employees alike.

Visible or physical disabilities can often be easier to understand and to accommodate. Defined physical restrictions or recovery periods provide finite terms which are easier to address and are easier to accept as legitimate needs. Accommodating the invisible barriers presented by mental illness often remains far more challenging. Many persons experiencing mental illness may not wish to share details in the workplace, fearing stigmatization, embarrassment or privacy issues. Other persons may lack awareness that they are undergoing a health-related issue. For example, those struggling with addiction may have little or no self-knowledge that a medically recognized disability drives their compulsion to use. Adults experiencing their first episode related to mental illness may not recognize the signs and symptoms until weeks, months or years after the occasion.

Employers face a variety of different but equally challenging situations. For instance, when an employee silently struggles, employers may be tasked with difficult conversations to ensure adequate inquiry while not overreaching. The inability to clearly define prognosis and restrictions related to mental illness can make it difficult for employers to differentiate between legitimate medical needs versus employee abuse. Employers also often receive questionable and seemingly unsubstantiated accommodation requests, for instance: he cannot work Tuesdays or he cannot drive a Smart Car. No matter how obscure, employers should carefully consider each circumstance on a case-by-case basis and request adequate medical information without overreaching. Even in the very best circumstances where the employer and the employee harmoniously work together, difficulties may arise since the unpredictable and episodic nature of some mental illness can create attendance and staffing issues, and create obstacles even with good faith accommodation efforts.

Understanding and accommodating mental illness is an evolving area that requires a flexible approach. This article will discuss the key legal requirements and interesting related case-law related to workplace mental health issues.

Receive email updates
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

You May Also Like


Alison Darling
Queen’s IRC has a new website and participant portal!
As Queen’s IRC’s Director of Professional Programs, I am delighted to share we have launched a new website, compl...
Do employees have the right to work from home?
Labour Relations
Do Employees Have the Right to Work from Home?
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, global workforces experienced a sudden and forced shift into remote wo...
Bridging Differences: Techniques for Building Conflict Competence
Human Resources
Bridging Differences: Techniques for Building Conflict Competence
Interpersonal conflict is unavoidable, but the good news is there are many strategies you can develop to help strengt...


A group of people sit against a large window with desks in front of them.
Workplace Restoration
Addressing a Toxic Workplace to Rebuild Relationships and Productivity.
Two sets of hangs tugging a rope in different directions.
Strategies for Workplace Conflicts
Practical and Effective Conflict Resolution Skills for Managing Everyday Workplace Disputes.

Share this article

Page link

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.