Human Resources Division

Frequently Asked Questions about Mental Illness in the Workplace

1. An employee has asked for an accommodation, but has not disclosed detailed information about their disability. What information can I request?

The employee is not required under legislation to disclose the specific diagnosis or even the category of disability, but is required to provide enough information to enable the employer to provide the accommodation. This can include a note from a medical professional stating that there is a valid disability requiring accommodation, what the work-related limitations are, and what the prognosis is for recovery.

2. I have an employee whose performance has deteriorated over the past year. I am concerned that this person may have a mental health problem. Can I ask them about it? What if they deny that there is a problem?

An employer may, as part of a discussion about performance, ask an employee whether there are any problems that are interfering with their work. Without asking directly or saying that they think the individual has a mental health problem, the employer can suggest the employee consider talking to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counsellor or their family doctor, if personal or health issues are affecting their work.

It is appropriate to mention that there is an accommodation policy in place and what the individual should do if they require accommodation. It is important that in the event an employee discloses a mental illness, they are reassured that the disclosure will not jeopardize their employment nor leave them open to harassment or teasing by staff.

An employer may follow normal performance management or disciplinary process if there is no request for accommodation.

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3. An employee has returned to work after an extended disability leave and is fine while taking his medication, but has behavioural problems when he stops taking it. Can I require an employee to take their medication?

It is difficult to find any legal basis for an employer requiring an employee to take, or continue, a particular treatment, even as part of a return-to-work program. However, the employer can make it clear that when the person returns there are certain performance expectations. If these are not being met, then the return to work will be reviewed and a determination made about whether the person can carry out the requirements of the job.

4. What is a return-to-work discussion?

The return-to-work process after extended leave is an important process in terms of ultimate success. It should involve a gradual return beginning with necessary reorientation, retraining and reintegration.

So what should employers do to facilitate a plan that will enable the employee to eventually perform the essential duties of their position? Suggested practice:

  • Establish the essential duties of the job.
  • Consider the possible challenges in meeting the objectives of the job.
  • Understand the immediate supervisor's concerns and goals.
  • Review the healthcare provider’s report on limitations, if any.
  • Know about previous performance or workplace relationship issues that were not resolved prior to the employee's absence.
  • With all of this information, sit down with the employee prior to the official return-to work and facilitate a discussion about how they can best be supported to successfully do their job.
  • Ensure that the immediate supervisor and the employee have a shared understanding of what will happen upon the return-to-work.

We acknowledge that this is not always an easy task. Human Resources and the Equity and Diversity Unit can assist you to do this successfully.

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5. I am concerned that an employee with a mental health problem may be a safety risk. What action can I take?

Safety is one of the criteria that can be used to take definitive action provided that it is directly related to a bona fide occupational requirement and there is clear evidence that the individual cannot do the job in a safe manner, even with accommodation. Basing the decision upon stereotypes of mental illness rather than on the actual and probable safety risk would be considered discriminatory treatment.

6. What should I do if an employee is experiencing a crisis or a suicidal moment?

As a manager, you should not avoid the situation, take action. You should talk to the employee and listen actively to what the employee has to say. Contact your local hospital's Emergency Department or crisis telephone support line immediately for assistance. The time following a crisis or attempted suicide is critical. The employee should receive intensive care during this time. Maintain regular contact, and work with the employee to organize support. It is important that the employee does not feel cut off or shunned.

7. What is a disability?

"Disability" covers a broad range and degree of conditions, some visible and others not. Disabilities may be permanent, temporary or periodic. A disability may have been present from birth, caused by an accident, or developed over time. It includes physical, mental, and learning disabilities, mental disorders, hearing or vision disabilities, epilepsy, drug and alcohol dependencies, environmental sensitivities, as well as other conditions. Disability includes people recovering from a disability.

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8. What can I expect from the doctor?

The primary role of doctors is to treat individuals for any health conditions. In terms of the workplace, the doctor can provide the prognosis (an estimate of the expected duration of the illness or disability), the functional limitations of the individual (the impact of the illness or disability on function), and whether there is a condition that qualifies for accommodation. The doctor is not required to provide the diagnosis or personal details of the individual's medical file. It is also not the doctor's responsibility to create an accommodation plan. Their recommendations and the functional limitations are taken into account, but the responsibility for an accommodation plan rests with the employer and employee who are familiar with the workplace realities.

9. How much should I try to stay in touch?

It is University policy to keep in touch with employees who are absent due to a disability. Please keep in mind that every situation is different and how this is approached will depend on the individual, their relationships at work, and how they are feeling at the moment. In some cases, employees might feel pressure to return to work if you stay in constant communication. In these cases, a card, email, flowers or voice message will suffice to let them know they are still being thought about. The point is to reduce the sense of disconnection or isolation from the workplace without overwhelming or pressuring the employee.

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Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

10th December 2012