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Accommodating Workers with Mental Illnesses: Part One

Under the AODA, specifically the Employment Standard, employers are required to accommodate workers with mental illnesses. To do so, employers must become aware of what mental illnesses are. They also need to learn some strategies that will allow people with such illnesses to succeed in the workplace.

What are Mental Illnesses?

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that can affect many different aspects of a person, such as:

  • Thought processes
  • Emotions
  • Moods
  • Behaviours
  • Sense of self
  • Capacity to connect with others
  • Ability to cope with stress

Common Mental Illnesses

There are many different mental illnesses. However, we will only discuss a few that are common for workers with mental illnesses. Some common mental illnesses are:

Anxiety Disorders:

Conditions in which people’s experience of anxiety becomes overwhelming and often affects other aspects of their lives.

Bipolar Disorder:

A chronic illness involving extreme changes in people’s moods, energy levels, and ability to think clearly. In addition, people experience periods of mania or depression that can last days or months.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD):

A condition characterized by:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Severe mood swings
  • Impulsivity
  • Unstable self-image

Moreover, these characteristics can negatively affect people’s relationships.

Depression:

Persistent feelings of sadness that can impact people’s:

  • Thoughts
  • Moods
  • Behaviour
  • Energy levels
  • Activities
  • Physical health

Eating Disorders:

Conditions in which people’s intensive concern about food, weight, or body image lessens their ability to focus on other parts of their lives.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):

An illness in which a person has repeated and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or irrational urges to perform certain actions (compulsions).

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):

A condition in which some people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as an accident, assault, military combat or natural disaster, may have repeated, involuntary memories or flashbacks of the event, sometimes triggered by sights, sounds or smells that recall the event.

Schizophrenia:

A condition in which people have difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not, thinking clearly, making decisions, relating to others, or regulating emotions. People may also have hallucinations or delusions.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

An illness in which people experience periods of depression during late fall and winter but are without these symptoms for the rest of the year.

Different Ways to Experience Mental Illnesses

People experience mental health challenges differently: some people experience periods of illness between times when they are feeling their best, while others’ states of mental health are unchanging. Additionally, some instances of mental illness may be caused by triggers. For example, a person may develop depression after an upsetting life event.  However, other people may have depression without experiencing such an event. Furthermore, some people experience one depressive episode while others undergo repeated episodes.

Likewise, someone with BPD may experience a persistent feeling of anger after an event elsewhere that inspired this feeling. Similarly, a person who has PTSD may experience flashbacks of a traumatic event through a certain smell or sound.

Workers with mental illnesses may face challenges, such as:

  • Focusing
  • Processing information
  • Making choices

They may also begin behaving in non-typical ways, for example, distance themselves from others or take a great deal of time off. These difficulties may cause workers to feel that they cannot work or to worry about losing their jobs. These concerns further complicate workers’ mental well-being.

As a result of having open and positive dialogue between workers and employers, fears surrounding mental health will lessen. Employers who keep dialogue open and develop a confidential process for arranging accommodations may encourage workers to get the support they need without compounding their symptoms or increasing their stress.

Part 2 of Accommodating Workers with Mental Illnesses will discuss how employers can promote mental health in the workplace, explain how workers can disclose that they have mental health challenges, and describe some accommodations that workers can use to stay healthy and productive.