Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator
Historically, persons with mental illness have been considered by and large to be unemployable, or somehow undesirable as employees. However, in all but the rarest exceptions, the opposite is true. People with mental illness represent a largely untapped and vast source of labour, knowledge, and ideas. They are largely under-represented in the Canadian workforce. “Their potential productive energy has been overlooked at an enormous cost to the individual as well as at a significant social and economic cost to the community.” The cost to the individual is akin to the cost that a person without mental illness would suffer if they couldn’t find work; a person who chronically struggles to find work/financial sustenance undergoes a great deal of stress and lowered self-esteem. Individuals who have mental illness are no different in this respect.
What is Mental Illness?
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) defines mental illness as when the brain does not work in the way that it is supposed to. CMHA compares this to an illness where the lungs, or heart don’t work the way that they are supposed to, in order to drive home the fact the mental illness is just that: an illness. A person cannot stop being mentally ill no more than they can stop themselves from having cancer. Like an individual suffering from a physical ailment, people with mental illness can play a part in their recovery, but they do not choose to be ill. Examples of mental illnesses include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder, just to name a few. There are many more. Sometimes we work with individuals with a mental illness and do not ever realize it. Other times, coworkers with mental illness require accommodation. Additionally, sometimes employers wish to hire people with mental illness and are aware of their illness prior to hiring and want to accommodate them.
What is Stigma?
Sometimes people with mental illness choose not to disclose it in the workplace or ask for accommodation, even though accommodation may help make doing their job easier. The reason one may choose to keep a mental illness to themselves is because there is a stigma associated with mental illness and with accommodation. Stigma manifests itself in incorrect, negative stereo types and sometimes discriminatory (intentional or more likely, unintentional) behaviours. The antidote to stigma is open discussion, accepting attitudes, and education about mental illness.
Without education and information, accommodations for individuals with mental illness may be perceived erroneously as favouritism, or preferential treatment. Changing this opinion is a major challenge for employers. The best way to help all workers understand accommodation and how it benefits both the employee and the overall organization is through open discussion, education, and information. If knowledge is power, the understanding mental illness and its impact on an individual will help workers accept accommodations as the employer’s way of providing equitable treatment to all workers in the workplace.
How can I Accommodate Mental Illness in my Workplace?
In her work Diversity Works: Accommodations in the Workplace for People with Mental Illness, Lana M. Frado outlines the following principles of accommodation:
- Create an environment where accommodations are accepted by addressing the individual needs of each employee
- Respect employees’ desire for confidentiality and identify the form and degree of confidentiality
- Be willing to engage in joint problem solving
- Make accommodations voluntary
- Be prepared to review accommodations and make changes as required
- Be flexible with traditional policies and their enforcement
- Put all accommodations in writing and be concrete and specific when identifying the parameters of the accommodations
By keeping principles as the above in mind, employers can create a positive and accommodating environment for all workers.
Accommodations that can be made for employees are limited only by your imagination and the ideas of yourself and the worker. Examples of accommodations for mental illness include a private workspace for a person easily distracted, earlier start/end times for a person who gets anxious on crowded transit, flex time for a worker who has daytime mental health appointments, or a work from home arrangement for an employee who struggles with interpersonal interactions. Mental illness isn’t the only reason to allow accommodation. Consider the stress level of workers, and the sky is the limit with accommodation that can reduce their stress and make them happier, healthier, and therefore more productive: flexible start/end times to help parents with children in care, a work at home arrangement for those workers caring for elderly parents in the home (those workers caring for both children and elderly parents are known as the “sandwich generation”), allowing workers to bank OT to take time off, or allowing sick days to be used for physical illness and emotional illnesses.
Communication and Education are the Key
Without proper education and information, the stigma toward mental illness will persist. As soon as you educate workers and open the floor for open communication regarding mental illness, you will find that the primary accommodation desired by employees with mental illness is equitable treatment and a chance to prove themselves as a worker. Mental illness does not define a person; therefore, it does not define their ability. The move toward an accepting and open organizational climate is not one that will happen in a day; however, it is one that is already rapidly growing across Canada. As mental illness becomes more understood, so too does the need for accommodation.
As seen in our January Be Safe Newsletter
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