When Laura returned to work after eight weeks on leave after a severe depression, she found that very little had changed; not the pace, nor the lack of control over her work environment, and certainly not the responsibilities or expectations. According to Laura, “the hours were out of control and for someone who’s experiencing mental illness, working long hours is very unhealthy.”

In fact, the only thing that changed was how people treated her. She had been a trusted, valued member of a high-performing team. Now, she felt like an outsider – her colleagues avoided her, her manager didn’t know how to help. After a year, Laura left her job for good.

Shortly prior to her illness, Laura, a forty-year old mother of two, had been promoted to a much more demanding position. That, combined with family stress, and a serious kidney infection, triggered a severe depression that made it impossible for her to work for a time. When she returned to work, her employer had no idea how to support her. Laura says ruefully, “At one point I was a star. Then I dropped off the face of the earth.”

Laura’s illness, and the response from her company seriously damaged her self-esteem. “I hated myself,” she says simply. Her employer lost as well – a talented, dedicated individual, and the investment they had made in her training and development over a career that spanned almost seven years with the organization.

“It’s a common scenario,” notes Mary Ann Baynton, Director of Mental Health Works, an initiative that helps organizations to manage their duty to accommodate employees experiencing mental disabilities such as depression or anxiety in the workplace. “But it doesn’t have to be.”

Most managers know that they have a legal responsibility to accommodate people with disabilities in their workplace. In other words, employers must eliminate employment practices or requirements that discriminate against any employee on the basis of a number of criteria, including disability. When this involves physical changes to a workspace, most employers are comfortable taking action, but when it comes to mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, accommodation seems much more difficult. “Managers are often so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing that they do nothing,” notes Baynton. “But doing nothing can be the wrong thing.”

According to a recent survey conducted by Watson Wyatt, an international consulting firm focused on human capital and financial management, mental health issues are the top health and productivity-related concern for Canadian employers but few have plans to address it in their workplaces. “Organizations must understand their own corporate DNA and deal with the issues that are important to them,” Joseph Ricciuti, the National Group and Health Care Director of Watson Wyatt, Canada, advises. “They must implement the right interventions at the right investment cost in a framework that works for them and their workforce.”

Unwillingness to act on the part of her employer was the last straw for Laura. “After I returned to work, when I went into tell my manager about what was happening with me, she put up her hand and said ‘No, don’t tell me, because then I have to treat you differently from everyone else,'” she said. “And at that point, I didn’t know my rights, so I didn’t say anything.”

Despite the reticence employers seem to have to respond to this emerging health crisis, there’s no secret to accommodating an employee with a mental illness, says Baynton. “The first thing to realize is, like any other serious health problem, people with mental illness most often aren’t returning to work at 100 percent,” she notes. “The return-to-work process should be gradual; retraining, re-orientation – a gradual return to work.”

However, accommodating a staff member with a mental illness doesn’t mean simply reducing the workload, a solution that often reinforces stigma about the capacity of people with a mental illness and causes resentment among colleagues. There are a number of other options, such as exchanging tasks between two colleagues who share similar job descriptions, providing flexible schedules, or changing the nature of communication by putting requests in writing to address short-term memory loss.

Baynton also stresses that there are times a manager should offer accommodation, even if an employee does not specifically request one. If an employer reasonably should have known that mental health issues were involved, given the nature of the change in the employee’s behaviour or performance, there is legal precedent that indicates an obligation on the part of the employer to offer accommodation, even without disclosure by the employee. The reason for this is that symptoms of a mental illness sometimes include a lack of insight into the illness itself, which means that people who are ill may actually have difficulty recognizing they need help at all or how to ask for it. As Laura puts it, “I could not be the one to do my managing. I needed my manager to manage me and of course, when there’re mental health issues involved it’s challenging. But it’s her job, and the law, and it’s also my right and the right of my coworkers!”

Managers and colleagues often feel that they need to understand a diagnosis to understand what the individual is going through. “Knowing a diagnosis doesn’t help,” Baynton stresses. In fact, most people with mental illnesses receive four different diagnoses over their lifetime, and mental illnesses manifest very differently in different people. One person with depression may seem sad, while another is irritable and angry, and a third is withdrawn and quiet. “You need to focus on the person, not the label,” says Baynton.

As Laura experienced, coming back to work after a mental illness may mean being ignored, often because no one knows what to say. She points out, “No one said ‘What do you need?'” A manager should be asking those questions, but even a conversation about a neutral topic can mean a great deal to someone trying to fit back into a workplace environment. “Getting back to as normal an environment as possible is important,” says Baynton, “It’s very important that the person feel included in the water-cooler talk to the extent they are comfortable.”

Thankfully, Laura’s story has a happy ending. She moved on to another organization, one that had learned how to address mental health issues. “It’s been like night and day,” she says. “I can talk about flexible work hours, I have an office with a door I could close, and they changed the lighting in my office, which really helps me work. I have a manager willing to accommodate me and speak to me openly. She laid a foundation of trust and my needs were a high priority for her.”

And from her new company’s point of view, it’s been well worth it. “She makes a tremendous contribution to this organization,” her manager says. “We’re so lucky to have her.”


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