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Should employees talk about mental illness?

This month media campaigns are encouraging people to talk about mental illness. This raises the question about whether employees should talk to their employer about mental illness or remain silent for fear of losing their jobs.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (Commission) in its recent paper “Minds That Matter: Report on the consultation on human rights mental health and addictions“, many employees do not ask for help with a mental health issue or an addiction because they fear being discriminated at work including loss of job opportunities, increase scrutiny or dismissal. Employees also reported being harassed by supervisors and co-workers due to their mental disability or need for accommodation.

Mental illness such as depression, bipolar or anxiety disorder is considered a disability under the Ontario Human Rights Code. An employee has the right not to be discriminated against due to a disability and an employer is obligated to accommodate an employee with a disability up to the point of undue hardship.

Discrimination in employment due to mental disabilities is pervasive. People with mental health issues suffer from higher unemployment than the general population and are underemployed in part-time, low income jobs according to studies reviewed by the Commission. The Commission also reported that persons with mental disabilities report being subjected to added performance reviews, discipline and/or dismissal from their jobs due to their mental disability.

Statistics Canada data reveals that at least 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems each week and mental illness costs the Canadian economy an estimated $51 billion each year. This number is estimated to go up year after year.

Employers should create policies outlining accommodations available to employees with disabilities including mental illness. Such policies should include what assistance is available to the employee and who can they talk to when they need help. Human Resources or Wellness managers should be involved in the accommodation process to ensure appropriate steps are taken to accommodate an employee with a mental disability. In some circumstances, human resources should involve a mental health expert.

To reduce the costs of mental illness, employers are well advised to invest in wellness programs to maintain a healthy workplace and to train front-line supervisors on the signs of an employee with a mental disability.

Employees that feel discriminated against due to mental illness should discuss their concerns with their manager or human resources. If the discrimination is not resolved, employees should contact the human rights tribunal or a lawyer to know their rights.

Meghan Ferguson
Devry Smith Frank LLP

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Meghan Ferguson

General Counsel & Director, Employee Relations at CNIB
Meghan Ferguson is legal counsel for Human Resources, Sales, Finance and Communications.She provides advice for people and transactions. Previous employment:
Kellogg Company, Devry Smith Frank LLP, Hudson's Bay Company, and in the employment standards, labour and health & safety divisions at the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Read more
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