Managing the impact of mental illness in a team

When a staff member with a mental health issue is affecting team work, what can HR do to make sure they’re supporting both the ill staff member, and the rest of the team?

Managing the impact of mental illness in a team

Mental illness is an invisible disease, which makes it difficult to recognize and address within a work environment. While accommodation is key, there are added complications when an employee’s illness affects how well they work with their colleagues.

When an employee is disruptive, it’s understandable that their teammates will look to management to address that behaviour, but when the disruptive behaviour is related to a diagnosed mental health issue it complicates matters.

As an employer, you are required to accommodate for mental health issues, and for privacy reasons you can’t tell the rest of the staff what’s happening so it’s possible you’ll end up with a lot of disgruntled workers, wondering why one person is getting what appears to be special treatment.

According to employment lawyer Kelsey Orth, a partner at Crawford Chondon & Partners, a good step is to include a general statement during the onboarding or training process. Tell employees that your organization accommodates all forms of illness and injury and you hope they will trust management if they need accommodation, and will recognise that sometimes it will apply to their coworkers.

If an individual is causing disruptions or turmoil in the workplace, you can handle it as a behavioural issue while still accommodating their needs, but if it becomes a workplace safety issue it is important to act quickly to ensure everyone’s physical safety is protected.

But what if one or more employee makes accusations of harassment?

“Harassment rules under [Ontario’s] Bill 168 are different and broader than harassment or discrimination under the [Human Rights] Code. We’re going from competing rights to competing laws, almost,” Orth said.

Which is more important: accommodating mental health, or preventing harassment? Find out on Page 2.#pb#

Human Rights Code is a quasi-constitutional piece of legislation, essentially meaning it has priority over Bill 168, Orth said. So if you’re juggling the two, it’s better to err on the side of the Code. Discuss the problem with the perpetrator and try to find ways of managing the situation and the behaviour – just as you would if the perpetrator wasn’t suffering from a mental illness. If they don’t improve, it may be a case where undue hardship is applicable.

“I would be of the opinion that the law would uphold an eventual point of undue hardship where an employer has got to deal with the same issue over and over when they’re trying to accommodate that employee’s mental health issue. And that’s not to say that mental health is an excuse in every instance of harassment,” Orth said.

And finally, don’t forget that accommodation has two aspects: procedural and substantive. If you don’t undertake a process, then even if you came to the right conclusion, you’ve failed in your duty to accommodate. The process doesn’t have to be the same for every company or even every situation, but you need to have a set of steps in place for managing accommodation.

Key things to keep in mind:

  1. Perfection is not a requirement
    Employees who requests accommodation often have a specific scenario in mind, but the employer is not obligated to do exactly as requested, or to provide perfect accommodation.
    “The duty on the employer is to provide reasonable accommodation, which is up to the employer to assess,” Orth said. “As long as it meets whatever restrictions the employee has then the employer is free to do whatever they feel is best for the employer.”
  2. You can still behaviour manage accommodated individuals
    “You can still get into that discussion with the employee who is the perpetrator of the harassment, and I think you can still get to an undue hardship point if that behaviour continues and it is something that is drastically impeding the business and day to day operations,” Orth said. “Make sure you’re talking to the accommodated employee, telling them ‘This is really disruptive and we can’t have it keep happening. What can we do about it?’”
  3. Each situation is different
    There are no “one size fits all” solutions so it’s key to get as much information as possible about each individual situation. The employee must provide you with all the information you require to accommodate so don’t be afraid to ask for more details. In general the rule is "prognosis not diagnosis" so while you can't demand details of what they've been diagnosed with, you can request detailed information about what they can and cannot do.
  4. Record everything
    Orth emphasises having a process in place, following the process and documenting every step – it will all help if your organization does end up before the Human Rights Tribunal or the courts. If the individual’s behaviour is affecting productivity or the bottom line, record that as well. It will be easier to prove “undue hardship” if that becomes necessary.

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