A Short Overview of Mental Illness in the Workplace October 19 2015

Everyone has a story they can tell about mental illness. The story might be about themselves, their friends, their family, or even their coworker. It has a way of touching not only the patient, but those close to them. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their life time, with 8% of adults experiencing a major depressive episode at least once. Mental Illness and addiction are also included under the Ontario Human Rights Code categorization of Disability; meaning that employees are, by law, protected from discrimination and harassment stemming from any past, present, or perceived condition.

The question, then, is this: why do we know so little about it? Individuals suffering from mental illness are often misunderstood and stigmatized by their peers, often unintentionally. They may be exposed to stereotypes or face barriers in the workplace that their cohorts and superiors are unable to understand. Many employees will never come forward for fear of how they might be treated.

Mental illness is real, and it exists in the workplace. It is protected by law, meaning that employers have a responsibility to accommodate. What follows is a short guide to the various mental illnesses commonly found in the workplace, as well as some guidelines for employer’s seeking to create an accommodation plan. While far from comprehensive, we hope that it might shed some light on an otherwise nebulous topic.

Common Forms of Mental Illness

Stress: The potential progenitor of a variety of mental illnesses. “Stress” itself manifests as a pressure felt by an individual when required to respond to or change something. Stress is a key component in both motivation and satisfaction, but excessive stress can result in a variety of physical and mental illnesses. Stress-related disorders can include Acute Stress Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Anxiety Disorders: Characterized by pervasive feelings of fear, specified or generalized. Generally speaking, anxious behavior stems from dread over an anticipated future event. Specific types of anxiety disorders can include Generalized Anxiety Disorders, Phobias, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, and many more. Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other personality disorders.

Depression: Characterized by a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness, irritability, and emptiness. Depression can manifest itself in a variety of physical symptoms, including exhaustion, insomnia, and generalized aches and pains. There are many variants of depressive disorders, with Major Depressive Disorder being the most common.

Burnout: Also referred to as Occupational Burnout. Burnout is a stress-related disorder most common in job with high degrees of human interaction (such as nurses, police officers, and customer service reps). Employees suffering from burnout tend to experience a lack of motivation, a decrease in efficiency, and present symptoms of exhaustion.

Substance Abuse and Addiction: Substance abuse refers to an excessive use or dependence on a given substances, to the point of distress. An individual can become both physically and psychologically dependent on said substance, leading to a variety of possible health risks as well as impaired judgement. While this refers specifically to drug addiction, other behavioral addictions (gambling, for example) are also possible.

Bipolar Disorder: Characterized by rapid and drastic changes in mood. Individuals with a bipolar disorder may experience episodes of both manic (overly joyful and irritable) and depressive (sadness and loss of interest) behavior. There may also be ‘mixed episodes’ in which an individual might display symptoms of both. Various types of bipolar disorder exist, including Bipolar I, Bipolar II, and BP-NOS (Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

Schizophrenia: Characterized by confusion regarding reality. Diagnosed individuals may suffer episodes of ‘psychosis’ resulting in hallucinations or delusions. The severity of the disorder can vary greatly between different patients; many cases are highly treatable with the appropriate medication. A Diagnosis of Schizophrenia does not, as commonly believed, imply a multiple-personality disorder.


If an employee chooses to disclose to their employer that they live with mental illness, it is the employer’s duty to accommodate up to a point of undue hardship. While an employee may ask for accommodation, they are not necessarily under an obligation to disclose their specific mental illness. It is, however, an employer’s right to request medical documentation outlining the accommodations required. All accommodations must respect the dignity of the individual in question; not further stigmatize them. Some possible accommodations may include:

  • Modified working hours while returning from a leave, gradually easing into to a regular schedule.
    • EX: Reducing the length of a work day
    • EX: Working fewer days in a week
  • Change the ways in which supervisors interact with the employee.
    • EX: Providing written directions in lieu of verbal ones
    • EX: Scheduling regular meetings to ‘check in’ with the employee
  • Isolating and eliminating stressors that are particularly disruptive for the employee in question
    • EX: Arranging for a quiet working environment
    • EX: Allowing an employee to leave the room periodically during meetings
  • Changes to training processes.
    • EX: Allow for extra time
    • EX: Individualize the course

Of course, there is no single strategy when it comes to accommodating mental illness. Rather, adaptations are based upon the specific needs of the individual; that is what ‘accommodation’ means, after all. In all cases however, the details of an individual’s accommodation should be kept confidential. The goal is not to separate the employee from the workplace with special treatment, but rather to help integrate them into the team.

The information presented above is intended to help readers be mindful of mental health in the workplace. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, constitute medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding mental illness, please consult a professional.