OHS Canada Magazine

How to assist an employee with a mental health issue

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December 5, 2021
By Supriya Sharma

Health & Safety Human Resources Mental Health

If an employee reaches out to you with a mental health concern, it’s important you know how to address the issue. (blacksalmon/Adobe Stock)

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) says that one in five Canadians are likely to experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this mental health crisis.

A CMHA-UBC survey released earlier this year reported that 41 per cent of respondents admitted their mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic started.

Another survey found that the pandemic led to an increase in levels of “anxiety, depressive symptoms, loneliness and binge drinking.”

If an employee reaches out to you with a mental health concern and/or requests accommodation, it is important you know how to address the issue and get your employees the support they need.


After all, employee wellness is critical to the success of your business. Investing in the mental health of your staff can help reduce the risk of employee burnout, absenteeism, and high turnover in the workplace.

Responding to a request

It is important that you respond sensitively. Do not try to diagnose your employee or fix their problem with a pep talk. Find out what their needs are and how you could accommodate them.

“Remember that under the human rights law, employers have a duty to accommodate the needs of employees that relate to protected grounds to the point of undue hardship. Disability is a protected ground and includes mental health issues,” says Hope Kirk, head of consultancy, HR and health and safety at Peninsula Canada.

“You must also not discriminate against a worker because of their mental health issue or mental illness. Denying them a promotion, harassment, bullying, termination would be examples of discrimination,” she says.

It is critical that you keep the information shared with you strictly confidential unless doing so puts the affected employee or others in imminent danger.

You may also want to apprise your employee of in-house mental health resources, such as your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if you offer one.

An Employee Assistance Program is a confidential professional counselling service (usually paid for by employers) that helps staff manage personal difficulties that may affect their work performance, such as substance abuse, poor mental health, family, or marital problems.

“It is useful to keep in mind the difference between a diagnosed mental illness (i.e. an anxiety or trauma-related disorder) and a mental health concern that is temporary, such as overwhelming stress or anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Kirk.

“Remember one can have good mental health despite a mental illness if it is managed well,” she says.

Reading the warning signs

If you see signs of visible stress, a drop in performance and/or increased absenteeism and suspect the employee may be struggling with a mental health challenge, you should talk to the employee.

“Start the conversation by bringing up their past accomplishments,” says Kirk. “This will establish that you value their work. Then steer the discussion towards the present drop in productivity or behavioural changes. Support your statements with clear examples.”

Let your employee know that your conversation is completely confidential. If they are struggling with any issue, the company would provide them support and, where possible, accommodation.

If they do decide to open up and share their mental health concern, listen to them objectively. It is not an easy conversation for your employee to have and it’s important that they do not feel judged or rushed. Don’t push for more details than they are comfortable sharing.

Once you understand the employee’s concern and the support they need, work out a plan with them that details how their mental health issue may affect their work and the support or accommodation they may need (flexible work hours, evening shifts, work from home, a quieter work area).

“If needed, you could consider changing or altering your employee’s job duties to help them adapt better. But make sure any changes to major terms of employment are made with the written consent of the employee and updated in the employment contract,” says Kirk.

You should also hold regular follow-up meetings with your employee to review their workload and see how the support provided has helped them improve their performance and mental health.

Workplace best practices

In many cases, people suffering from mental health challenges do not seek help due to either a lack of awareness or the stigma that is still associated with having a mental health issue.

Employers can encourage mental well-being in the workplace by educating their staff on the importance of mental wellness.

“You can do this by sharing information via company communications or putting up relevant posters in the workplace. Providing your supervisors training on mental health awareness and how to sensitively hold such conversations with their teams would also be very useful,” says Kirk.

It is also important to have a workplace mental health policy so that both managers and employees know what to do regarding a mental health accommodation request.

“Your policy should set down clear guidelines and procedures to be followed by both supervisors and employees while making or responding to such a request. Make sure to include it in your employee handbook and share it with your staff,” says Kirk.

Supriya Sharma is an HR writer for Peninsula Canada in Toronto.


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