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Accommodating Workers with Mental Illnesses: Part Two

In Accommodating Workers with Mental Illnesses: Part 1, we defined what a mental illness is, briefly described some common mental health challenges, and explained how some workers with mental illnesses may experience them.

In Part 2, we will explore how employers can create mentally healthy work environments, discuss how workers can disclose that they have mental health impairments, and list accommodations employers can provide for workers who disclose.

How to Create Mentally Healthy Workplaces

Employers can create a mentally healthy workplace for all employees by:

  • Providing positive feedback
  • Regulating how conflicts should be resolved
  • Encouraging respectful interpersonal relationships
  • Ensuring that workloads permit work-life balance

Employers who foster this healthy environment may help workers with mental illnesses feel comfortable disclosing their conditions. Workers may choose not to disclose because of the social stigma that surrounds mental illness or because they fear possible discrimination.

How to Disclose

If workers choose to disclose, they should first investigate their employer’s policy on workplace accommodations. Large organizations may have a human resources department that handles all such concerns without involving a worker’s supervisor, whereas smaller organizations may not. So, a conversation with an immediate supervisor may be required. However, disclosing could involve any of the following individuals:

  • The employer
  • The supervisor
  • Human resources personnel

Workers are not required to disclose their medical diagnoses, but they should explain that they are encountering health problems. They should also describe the accommodations they need in order to perform job tasks successfully. They may wish to do so in person but may also offer to provide information in pamphlets or websites that can help the employer better understand their conditions or accommodations. Workers’ doctors may need to verify this information. Disclosing to employers, or to other colleagues if workers choose to do so, may expose workers to stigma. However, disclosure may also lead to a more secure or fulfilled work experience.

Accommodating Workers with Mental Illnesses

Workers experiencing mental ill-health can remain fully productive, and workers with some disorders may be more productive than colleagues who are not experiencing mental ill-health. While some employees may require an accommodation to reach full productivity in the workplace, it should not be assumed that an employee experiencing mental ill-health always requires an accommodation. Employers should ask workers which accommodations are best for them.

Accommodations to Maximize Focus

Some people with mental health impairments may work best in enclosed spaces without auditory or visual distractions, either permanently or for part of the workday. Others may use noise-canceling headsets, listen to calming music or sounds, or set up their workstations away from high-traffic areas or loud devices. Some employees may work best in an environment with natural light or full spectrum lighting. Others may work from home for part or all of the time, arrange to come to work during a time of day when they are most focused, or maintain a consistent work schedule. Some workers may focus intensively for short periods of time and take brief breaks. Others may request not to be disturbed during periods of intensive work. They may need to break down large projects into smaller tasks or exchange certain job tasks with coworkers.

Accommodations for Memory, Organization, and Time Management

Some workers will prefer written instructions in addition to verbal directions, while others will benefit from verbal reminders. Workers may keep track of information using different methods, such as:

  • Audio recordings
  • Daily or weekly checklists
  • Wall calendars
  • Planners or notebooks
  • Sticky notes or colour-coded labels
  • Electronic organizers or apps.

Workers may request written minutes of meetings and training sessions or make recordings of these events. Some people may need additional training when learning new tasks, or request reminders of deadlines by email or in person. Some employees may work with a job coach to develop organization or time management skills. Others may meet regularly with a colleague to set job goals and to ensure they are being met.

Accommodations for Stress Management

Some workers may need to take longer breaks during the day or call a doctor or support person. Others may need to perform only the essential tasks of their jobs during times of stress. Employees who have Panic Disorder should be able to move to a restful location where they can relax. Workers who are triggered by certain smells or noises should work in an environment free of these sensory stimuli. Employers and employees should develop strategies for handling conflict. Workers may sometimes need to step away from frustrating or stressful situations. Supervisors, colleagues, and workers can create a system to let workers know if they are behaving unprofessionally or inappropriately. When workplaces are introducing changes in environments or supervisors, colleagues should communicate with workers to ensure smooth transitions or arrange any new accommodations.

Employers who provide accommodations for workers with mental health challenges prove to everyone working for them that they value the well-being of their staff. Employers who create supportive workplaces will gain the expertise of workers who can offer a wide range of skills and talents when the accommodations they need are met.