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Supports for mental health in the workplace

by Nancy J. Gowan

Managing mental health and return-to-work accommodations

Most of us have heard the words mental illness or mental disorder or psychiatric condition. These terms all mean the same thing. But what do they mean? The term mental illness is used to describe a wide range of different conditions. What they have in common is that they all affect a person’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviours – how they see themselves, how they see the world around them, and how they interact in that world.

Of course, all of us go through times where our world view changes, but what makes it an illness is how long it goes on for and how much it negatively impacts your life. Managers and co-workers may be the first to recognize the signs of distress in the workplace. These may include behavioural changes, new performance difficulties, and change in ability to participate in workplace activities. Managers and co-workers should be trained to address the concerns with the employee and offer support.

When a manager recognizes an employee in distress it is important to:

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  • approach the situation in confidence and with empathy and concern;
  • ask the employee about the behaviours and performance changes;
  • listen to the employee non-judgmentally;
  • assess the risk of suicide or harm to the employee or others;
  • ask the employee how they would like to be supported in the workplace;
  • encourage the employee by giving reassurance and any information;
  • suggest the use of resources such as employee assistance programs or community resources;
  • suggest the employee seek support from a family physician or other mental health supports in the community;
  • set an action plan of support;
  • follow up; and
  • document the resources and actions to be taken to assist the employee in having resources to take away from the meeting.

If the Employee Goes Off Work

The manager should be encouraged to keep in contact with the employee and offer support while the employee is off work. This contact should be genuine and supportive. Make sure that the employee continues to feel a part of the team. This will make it easier for the employee to transition back into the team. When the employee is able to return to work, offer support and work adjustments that might be needed at that time.

Note that how a question is asked is just as important as what is asked. Ensure that any question is asked with respect and sincere need for resolving the absences and providing support for the employee.

Do ask:

  • reason for absences (not the diagnosis, but if it is related to an illness or injury);
  • if the absence work related or not work related (if work related, ensure that a WSIB claim has been filed);
  • if there is any support that the company can offer to improve the absence;
  • if there is need for accommodation of functional disabilities;
  • the length that the employee expects the absence or accommodation may be required; and
  • duties within the workplace they can do, focusing on their abilities.

Don’t ask:

  • for a diagnosis of the employee’s medical condition; or
  • for any personal information that will not be used in determining solutions to the absence.

When discussing the work tasks it is helpful to break things down and ask what tasks the employee is able to do, might be able to do, or is unable to do.

Develop Individualized Return-to-Work Plans

Your individual return-to-work plan lays out the steps that need to be taken to return an employee to their pre-absence job. It is normally developed jointly by the return-to-work program manager (who coordinates the process), the worker, the worker’s treating practitioner (through the provision of restrictions), the worker’s supervisor, and the union (if applicable). Supervisors from other areas, the medical department, or staff from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board may assist in the process when the need arises.

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Lauren Bernardi and Khadeeja Ahsan’s article: Managing the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

A version of this article was published in Municipal World, July 2015.


Nancy J. Gowan is a Registered Occupational Therapist and Certified Disability Management Professional working in stay-at-work/return-to-work, accommodation, and access planning. As President of Gowan Consulting, she assists employers with the development of health and disability management strategies that improve productivity and reduce lost time.

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