Leadership support crucial in managing mental illness at work

Does mental health (or illness) have a place in the workplace? And does it matter to everyone? Should we have the conversation? The answer is yes to all these questions. These questions need to be considered in light of the increasing incidence of mental illness and the challenges surrounding the management of this complex disability. 

The workplace has typically shied away from acknowledging (far less addressing) mental illness in the workplace. In the event mental illness does occur with a co-worker or employee, it is many times perceived as either awkward, uncomfortable or a form of embarrassment for everyone involved, so it stays in the background. Unfortunately, the potential to appropriately manage this type of illness and disability is lost with a covert approach.

The workplace has an opportunity to address situations where mental illness is impacting an employee and workplace before it reaches a crisis point. The following case study highlights what happens when an issue is identified and not proactively addressed.

Keith Johnson*, a unionized employee, worked in a safety sensitive position. A single parent of a young child, with minimal support outside of work, Johnson started to come into work late and miss shifts. A pattern emerged slowly and this behaviour became more regular. On some days he would leave before his shift ended or behave in ways that concerned others in his work area.

Management received ambiguous concerns and complaints from Johnson’s co-workers about his behaviour at work and possibly his alcohol use. Management engaged in the classic "wait-and-see" approach, leaving Johnson to his own devices. As an employee in a safety sensitive position with an assumed substance abuse problem, this approach put both Johnson’s and his co-workers' lives in jeopardy. Instead of approaching Johnson to ask what was going on, the management team chose to address Johnson’s performance. This pushed Johnson into short-term disability leave, a typical first step when addressing a mental illness at work.

Unfortunately, managers often do not know how to effectively discuss and address the issue and would rather avoid it in conversation. Is it easier when it’s “out of sight, out of mind”? Avoiding the issue wasn’t the solution for Johnson, at least not initially. The low weekly indemnity benefit rate interfered with his ability to focus on treatment due to financial concerns. His physician, not wanting Johnson to experience the added strain of financial instability, continued to clear him for return to work, but Johnson couldn’t sustain work for any length of time. He experienced many failed return-to-work attempts, which undoubtedly impacted his mental illness and his relationships at work and home.

Johnson’s managers didn’t know how to proceed with an accommodation. While the occupational health nurse professional closely monitored his recovery and return-to-work transition, limited support from the management team, lack of compliance with treatment and insight into his illness and inability to maintain his treatment plan made it a difficult journey. After almost two years of persistence, Johnson finally accepted his illness and received five weeks of rehabilitation for his alcohol addiction. He has now returned to work but the situation remains guarded.

The relationship between Johnson, his manager and co-workers will take considerable time, communication skills, and is significantly more difficult when mental illness is involved, especially addiction. Addiction continues to be a misunderstood and heavily discriminated mental illness. Johnson faces many challenges not only as a person with an addiction, but as a single father, and an employee trying to rebuild his reputation. If management had intervened sooner, had asked Johnson what was going on, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken two years to come to a tenuous solution.

Social support is a critical factor in one’s mental health. Education for managers and front-line staff could have saved months, if not years of stress for both Johnson and his colleagues. While the situation remains uncertain for Johnson, his case did influence change within this workplace. The occupational health nurse professional is now invited to speak with management sooner on files with red flag indicators.

The union has recognized that wages and pension are not the only priority needed for members, and collective agreement provisions for weekly indemnity benefit rates will be reviewed at the next negotiation. The workplace has implemented a mental health education campaign and senior management have been vocal about “doing the right thing” and demonstrated genuine concern for mental illness. Clear, consistent and regular communication between stakeholders is critical. And because this happened to someone in the workplace, it has caused a mind shift for most employees working alongside Johnson.

The response of the management team and employees to mental illness matters to everyone especially to someone who simply needs understanding, support and genuine care.

*Name has been changed