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HR Smalltalk:
How to Handle Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

As human resources management experts, we are seeing an increase in the number of mental health issues that our clients are facing with their employees.  

Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, or just generally being stressed out - these are but a few of the more common health challenges we hear about.  

In the last year alone, the effects on our clients as a result of employee mental health concerns include:
  • Increased sick day usage
  • Marked decline in work productivity
  • Customer dissatisfaction
  • Employees self-medicating with alcohol and drugs 
  • Interpersonal and communication problems
  • Increased WorkSafeBC claims 
  • Increased short-term disability and long-term disability claims
  • Lots of conversations, lots of tears
The Canadian Institute of Health Research reports that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness in their lifetime. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental health problems and illnesses account for more than $6 billion in lost productivity costs. 
As mental health issues become an increasingly common workplace issue, what should you do as an employer?
1. Recognize a potential mental health issue
The difficulty is that, unlike a broken arm or having a fever, you often can't "see" a mental health issue. The employee may look fine on the outside, but is in in turmoil on the inside. As an employer, it is not your job to diagnose an employee’s health issue. This is the role of a qualified medical professional. However, it is important to be able to recognize the signs and behavioural cues that someone experiencing a mental health issue may demonstrate, which can include (but are not limited to):
  • Uncharacteristic behaviour
  • Frequently missing work and/or arriving late & leaving early
  • Decreased productivity
  • Quick to anger
  • Blaming others and making excuses for missed deadlines or poor results
  • Inability to work with colleagues
  • Poor focus and lack of concentration
  • Poor eating habits
  • Increased smoke breaks
  • Increased consumption of alcohol during social gatherings, at lunch or after work
Everybody has a bad day or a bad week. A mental health issue may be occurring when these and other cues repeatedly occur over an extended period of time.
2. Discuss concerns with the employee
It is important to take action if you believe that one of your employees is experiencing a mental health problem. Discuss your concerns as they relate to the employee's workplace performance, as you should with any other problem that is affecting an employee's work. When meeting with your employee, encourage him/her to seek support from a medical professional, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or community services. Assure the employee that any medical issues are confidential. Make a plan to review the employee’s performance, and document the meeting.
3. Be aware of your employer obligations
There are a number of legal statutes and case law affecting the obligations of employers when it comes to dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. There is human rights legislation that sets out the standards around discrimination and the accommodation of disabilities. There is occupational health & safety legislation that sets out the requirements to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace, including policy development, employee training and complaint investigation procedures. The details of the “duty to accommodate”, what constitutes “undue hardship”, or the “essential duties” of a position are case specific, and often require the professional guidance of an employment lawyer and/or HR experts familiar with employment law.
4. Communicate with affected staff
The employee’s colleagues may bring to your attention concerns about his/her performance, behaviour, attendance, accommodation, etc. Just like with any other medical issue, it is important to honour the privacy of your staff and keep medical information confidential. Discuss with your employee how they would like the matter communicated with their colleagues, clients, suppliers, etc. 
5. Prevention of mental health problems
To help prevent mental health issues in the workplace, it is important to foster a workplace culture where employees feel valued and are treated with respect. As well, when employees feel they have some balance between their work and home lives, it can reduce stress and prevent burnout. As an employer or manager, you have an obligation to ensure your workplace environment is free from bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
6. Resources for help
Dealing with mental health issues in the workplace can be overwhelming. There are a number of resources you can turn to for assistance in dealing with these delicate situations: employee assistance plan providers, insurance carriers, employment lawyers, and human resources consultants to name a few. Some helpful websites include:
For more information about HR services and HR solutions on how to deal with or prevent mental health issues in your small business, please contact our Vancouver-based HR outsourcing firm.
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