Human Resources Division

Reasonable Accommodation

Source: Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace- Managing Mental Health Matters:

Duty to accommodate

Every employer has what is called a "duty to accommodate" disabilities, including mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, in the workplace. This means that there is a legal obligation to proactively eliminate employment standards, practices or requirements that discriminate against any staff member on the basis of a number of criteria, including disability.

The employer may be required to do everything possible to the point of undue hardship - which can be a very high standard - to meet that obligation. If this is left too late, bridges may have been burnt and the vital requirements for trust and goodwill damaged.

Staff with Disability Workplace Adjustments Procedure

The University is committed to providing reasonable adjustments to the workplace and/or working arrangements for staff members with disability so that they can undertake their work effectively.

Guidelines for Making and Dealing with Requests for Flexible Work Arrangements (36 KB)

The University is committed to providing equitable access to employment opportunities, and provides flexible work arrangements to accommodate the responsibilities of staff members as parents and carers.

Managing Accommodation

Free scenario based on-line training for managers.

Thinking about accommodation

What are some strategies or considerations when thinking about accommodation?

  • Strive to create an atmosphere in which employees are comfortable discussing the issues that prevent them from being productive at work. This can include information about the organization’s accommodation policy and procedures for keeping personal information confidential.
  • Assume that an employee's request for accommodation is made in good faith so that you can go forward even as you await supporting documentation. This allows a more positive process than delaying until evidence is submitted.
  • Collaborate with the employee, and experts if necessary, to explore all reasonable accommodation solutions.
  • Maintain records of the request and steps taken to deal with the request.
  • Respect the confidentiality of the information provided by the employee.
  • Respond to accommodation requests in a timely manner.
  • Require the employee to provide only that information which is necessary to develop an appropriate accommodation.
  • Respond to the need for accommodation even if requests are not made in a formal manner or using the term "accommodation."
  • Pay the costs related to accommodation, including any medical certificates required.
  • Ensure that managers are aware of their obligation to prevent an employee from being harassed in the workplace because of their disability. Accommodation should be done in a way that does not subject the employee to ridicule. The employee should also be assured that the organization will not tolerate any form of harassment.
  • Ensure that progressive performance management processes are in place to identify and assist employees prior to their behaviours or performance leading to a disciplinary action.

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The employee should:

  • Tell the employer that they require accommodation because of a disability and, to the greatest extent possible, set out the type of accommodation needed. The employee does not have to advise the employer as to the specific diagnosis of the disability, but they do have to provide enough information so that the employer can understand the accommodation needed.
  • If requested, provide supporting documentation from a health care provider or other qualified person in order to assist the employer in developing an appropriate accommodation. This documentation should include the fact that the employee has a valid disability requiring accommodation, the workplace-related limitations resulting from the disability and the prognosis for recovery.
  • Work with the employer (and union, where applicable) to develop an appropriate accommodation. This includes working with any experts the employer has retained to assist with the accommodation.
  • Meet all relevant job requirements and standards once the accommodation has been provided.
  • Continue to work with the employer to ensure the accommodation remains effective.
  • Advise the employer when the accommodation is no longer required.

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What kinds of accommodation are people with a mental illness likely to need?

Accommodations are based on the unique needs of an individual employee, in his or her particular position, as well as on the resources available to the employer. There is no "one size-fits-all" solution. In some instances, one work unit will be unable to provide the same type of accommodation as another. In most cases, accommodations for a mental disability are inexpensive and involve workplace flexibility rather than capital expenditures.

Common accommodations for people with a mental disability include the following:

Flexible scheduling

  • Flexibility in the start or end of working hours to accommodate effects of medication or for medical appointments
  • Part-time or split shifts
  • More frequent breaks
  • Graduated return to work if the employee is on sick leave

 Changes in supervision

  • Modifying the way instructions and feedback are given. For example, written instructions may help an employee focus on tasks.
  • Having brief weekly meetings (10 minutes or so) between the supervisor and employee may help to deal with problems before they become serious. Make these a time to check on how the employee is doing and to see if they feel the accommodation is allowing them to succeed at work.

Changes in training

  • Allowing extra time to learn tasks
  • Allowing the person to attend training courses that are individualized

Modifying job duties

  • Assigning minor tasks to other employees. For example, if an employee requires accommodation for obsessive-compulsive disorder and grows anxious if they are exposed to germs, you might assign another worker to take their shift cleaning the kitchen if this is not an essential part of their job.
  • Exchanging tasks with other employees that maintain the balance of work while capitalizing on the strengths of each worker. An example might be one employee taking on more of the telephone calls while another takes on more of the correspondence.

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While we strongly recommend supporting your employee to come up with the particular accommodation that will be allow them to do their job successfully, what follows are suggestions shared by successful employees who also have mental illnesses. They are categorized by the particular challenge the employee may be experiencing:

If the challenge is maintaining stamina:

  • Vary tasks throughout the day
  • Provide more opportunities to learn new responsibilities
  • Allow a self-paced workload
  • Supportive employment services or work coach
  • Do some or all of the work from home
  • Job-sharing
  • Change to part-time work
  • Provide back up for regular breaks
  • Take more frequent breaks
  • Take longer breaks

If the challenge is concentration:

  • Remove all but essential functions of job
  • Play soothing music
  • Break large tasks into a series of smaller tasks
  • Take a break when concentration declines
  • Increase natural lighting in your work area

If the challenge is organization and/or deadlines:

  • Use an electronic organizer - to keep track of to-do list and mark off items as completed
  • Break large tasks into a series of smaller tasks
  • Ask for regular reminders from your supervisor
  • Arrange regular meetings for follow-up and to set priorities

If the challenge is memory:

  • Use any recording devices (e.g. digital recorder) to keep track of information discussed at a meeting
  • Write down important or complicated issues
  • Ask for instructions in writing
  • Ask for assignments in writing
  • Ask for additional training time

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If the challenge is working relationships:

  • Outline clear expectations
  • Define what constitutes good working relationships
  • Have regular meetings to review and address issues
  • Ask for open and honest feedback in a prompt manner
  • Develop strategies to deal with problems before they arise
  • Look at possible or previous issues - consider a way to address for each party
  • Ask for correspondence in writing
  • Ask for clear expectations and the clear consequences for not meeting them
  • Ask for written work agreements
  • Develop a procedure to evaluate the effectiveness of each accommodation
  • Think about how to measure effectiveness - i.e. deadlines met, no outbursts, etc.
  • Explain to employees (or have your supervisor explain) about the accommodation
  • Allow the option of not attending work related social functions

If the challenge is handling stress and emotions:

  • Outline clear expectations
  • Ask employer to provide praise and positive reinforcement
  • Allow time off to attend counselling sessions or medical appointments
  • Allow phone calls to doctors or others to gain necessary support during the workday
  • Provide awareness training for employees on mental illness

If the challenge is dealing with change:

  • Let your employer/supervisor know that you will feel anxious when a change is introduced
  • Ask to be informed in advance of changes, if possible, so that you can prepare yourself psychologically
  • Ask to maintain communication with a previous supervisor to ensure effective transition
  • Ask for regular meetings to discuss work-related problems with your supervisor

As a supervisor, you need to find out what it is that you do that is considered supportive to the employee and what it is that you do that may inadvertently make their symptoms worse.

An understanding of phrases or actions that should be avoided and processes or interactions that are helpful, can go a long way to increasing both your own comfort level and the success of the employee's return to productivity.

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The Return-to-Work Discussion between the Supervisor and Staff

This is not a script. It is a guideline to help you think about how to begin the discussion about return-to-work in a positive and constructive way. It is in addition to whatever accommodation directives you receive about your employee. It is intended to involve you building rapport, asking open-ended questions, following the lead of the employee, and working with them to anticipate what can assist in creating a successful return to work.

You may want to begin with something like this at least one day before your face-to-face meeting:

  • Our discussion will be about how we can make your return-to-work both healthy and successful. We will talk about what you need from me to be successful in your job. This can include anything in terms of work-related issues such as hours, tasks, environment, interactions with others, and equipment. We will look at a gradual return to full time duties over the next couple of months to allow you to get back up to speed in a good way.
  • Next we will discuss what you will do for yourself to make it successful. This can include things that will help you be well at work.
  • Finally, we will discuss how you would prefer we interact in the future. This can include how I assign work, how we follow up, how you prefer to receive feedback and how I can be a better manager for you. We can discuss any options at all.
  • I will let you know if I do not have the authority or ability to do something, but even if you think it might be unreasonable, let’s at least discuss it.

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Your questions during the meeting will be based on your employee's lead, but might include questions such as: (What is in parentheses are notes to you, the supervisor, not part of the question to the employee.)

  • How are you feeling about the return-to-work?
  • What are you looking forward to? (Try to incorporate these things early in the return and try to maximize them where possible.)
  • What do you think will present a challenge? (What can you do about these to make them easier rather than just avoid them.)
  • What was a challenge before you were off? (Try to avoid any discussion, opinion, or judgment about this. Simply ask about what can be done to make these easier.)
  • In what areas would you want further training? (Consider what has changed or is new since they have been off as well as necessary upgrading. Do not assume and make sure they know retraining is common after absences.)
  • How do you think others might perceive you here? (Be careful with this question. Put it in when the employee has brought up the issue of co-workers. The purpose is for the employee to identify any issues and then you are to ask: "What would you like to do about that?" to get at solutions. It may be helpful here to ask "If others are willing to start fresh, are you able to do this as well?". You do not want to rehash who said or did what to whom. You want a way to move forward and leave it behind. This may involve a change in communication, an acknowledgement of hurt or a recognition that the behaviours were due to being unwell. Do not provide the answer. Ask the employee for it.)
  • How would you like to be reintroduced to the group? (This could involve individual meetings, a group reintegration meeting or something less formal. Find out what the employee wants.)
  • Have you thought about what you will say about your absence? (This is where the employee has expressed anxiety about people asking why they have been off. You can help them come up with a response such as, "I had some medical problems, but I am doing much better now thanks." If pressed, they can say, "I would rather just get back to work and not have you feeling sorry for me, so I would prefer not to talk about it." or whatever the employee feels is appropriate.)
  • What do you think will be the most stressful part of your work day? (Again you are looking at working in solutions before the problem actually arises.)
  • Where do you feel your strengths lie? (It is important to help the employee remember their own value to the organization and to play up that as much as possible in the early days of the return. Sometimes, it is even possible to have the employee spend more time at what they are good at and less at those they feel are more of a challenge.)
  • Which tasks give you energy? (Just an alternate way to get at the same information about strengths.)
  • Which tasks zap your energy? (Just an alternate way to get at the same information about challenges.)
  • Is there anything I can do differently in terms of how I communicate, give feedback or instructions? (This can be tough if the employee does not really trust you. Try to help them know you really want this information for your benefit as well as theirs.)
  • Can you give me some direction about how I should approach you if I am concerned that you are unwell again? (Again, this can be tricky, but the information can be so valuable.

Some employees will actually share the early signs of their illness with you. Others will provide you with the language or specific instructions on who to call or what to do. Clarify everything and make sure that the entire plan is written as the employee agrees it should be.)

So much of this will depend on your comfort level and relationship with the employee. The point is to open up a conversation that gets at the day-to-day interaction between the employee and yourself and the co-workers. Understand what will allow them to stay well and be productive. Make sure you leave the door open to come back and discuss this again later if need be.

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10th December 2012