Dangerous assumptions: Misconceptions around mental health

'Mental health issues tend to be surrounded by misconceptions and assumptions'

Dangerous assumptions: Misconceptions around mental health

Mental health in the workplace has always been a topic of much debate. Cloaked in unnecessary taboos and apprehension, employees are often worried about broaching mental health issues with their employer. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that no one is immune to the effects of poor psychological health – so let’s stop making assumptions and start having honest conversations.

HRD spoke to David Whitten, partner at Whitten & Lublin PC and speaker at our upcoming Mental Health Summit. Whitten discussed the intricacies of declaring mental health issues at work - and revealed why HR needs to lead with compassion here.

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“In Ontario, we have human rights legislation which requires employers to accommodate any disablement, regardless of how it's caused, to the point of ‘undue hardship’,” he told HRD. “This is absolutely required. It’s also fact specific for each employer in terms of how large they are, which resources are available to that employer, what role the employee in question is in etc. For example, is it possible to infill that position for a period of time whilst the employee is recovering from their mental health condition? Is it possible to accommodate that person with reduced hours or duties? There's a number of ways in which an employee can be accommodated in the workplace and the extent to which an employer has to accommodate them is substantial.”

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The degree to which an employer has to accommodate an employee in the workplace for a mental health condition is a biproduct of the resources available to them. The larger the company is, the more effort they're expected to make. As Whitten told us, it's a very high standard that an employer has to meet before they can take the position that they simply can't accommodate the employee.

“If an employer claims they cannot accommodate their worker, they have to then prove that any accommodations would result in ‘undue hardship’”, continued Whitten.

“Let's say an employee declares that they have a mental health condition that – a sleep disorder for instance – meaning they have trouble getting any rest at night. The employee might say that they can only work up to four hours a day during a certain window of time – and they have a doctor’s note to back this up.

“In that situation, the employer then would have to look at how they could feasibly accommodate that worker. Is it possible that they could work these reduced hours and still get value from that person? Perhaps other members of their team could help out in covering the extra work? If they conclude that they can't, the employer can take the position that to accommodate the request would result in undue hardship.”

Whitten was quick to point out the real issue employers need to keep front of mind when it comes to mental health at work – and that’s compassion. Oftentimes, HR becomes bogged down with the legalities and logistics of accommodation – and forgets to act with kindness and respect.

“Unlike a lot of disabilities in the workplace, mental health issues tend to be surrounded by misconceptions and assumptions,” he told HRD. “The first assumption is usually that it's not a legitimate request, because you can't determine purely by looking at the employee whether they’re suffering from some form of disablement. It's often an invisible type of condition. That assumption is a form of scepticism. Then there's also misconceptions. This ridiculous idea that a person should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and they’ll be fine.”

Misconceptions span from questions such as ‘why is this employee experiencing more stress than everybody else on the team?’ Or ‘if there was an organizational issue then surely others would be feeling it too?’

“I would say the golden rule for employers, when it comes to mental health issues in the workplace, is to cast aside your assumptions, your stereotypes, your misconceptions, and approach this like you would any other physical disablement,” added Whitten. “That’s where compassion comes in. Start from a place of empathy. Afterall, this person has taken a bold step in coming forward and asking for help - that wasn’t an easy choice. From there, gather all the information you can before making any decisions on accommodation.”

To hear more from Whitten and other industry leaders, sign up to HRD’s upcoming Mental Health Summit here.

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