Blog: Mental Health-Related Disability and Employment Equity
Nicole Sobus, ESPC volunteer
Accessing employment is an ongoing challenge for many individuals. Various factors come into play when looking for a job, such as skills, interests, and education, as well as the type and number of jobs available in the current job market. People with mental health-related disabilities face these same realities when looking for employment, but additional issues can make finding and maintaining employment difficult. According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, over 2 million Canadians aged 15 and over have a mental health-related disability. Of those aged 25–64, 655,000 are employed, 99,000 are unemployed and 666,000 are not in the labour force. Almost half of those employed feel their condition makes it difficult for them to change or advance in their job and 1 in 4 believe this is due to discrimination or stigma. However, a report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (2013) shows that this is often under reported and many people experience structural stigma.
Bias and stigma toward people with disabilities is common in our society. Bias can be described as a lack of information and awareness that leads to disadvantaging particular groups or individuals. However, when it is combined with stigma, people are often devalued, rejected, excluded, and shamed, and can result in harassment and discrimination. There are laws in place to protect individuals engaged in the work force—in Alberta employers must follow the Alberta Human Rights Act. According to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, harassment can be expressed in the form of condescending comments meant to undermine an individual’s confidence. Discrimination occurs when there is an unfavourable influence on decisions impacting job performance due to harassment. These issues can exacerbate an individual’s mental illness. As a result, many employed individuals do not disclose their mental illness and, therefore, do not access necessary accommodations. However, if a person does disclose their mental illness, they are often not provided reasonable accommodations, such as a flexible work schedule, even though it is the legal responsibility of the employer to do so.
The Alberta Human Rights Commission defines mental disability as “any mental disorder, developmental disorder or learning disorder, regardless of the cause or duration of the disorder” (p. 2), which includes mental illness. It is an important point for individuals to know that they are protected and that there are steps they can take to request accommodations in order to maintain employment. Further, “the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that employers and service providers have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to accommodate individual needs to the point of undue hardship” (p. 5). Reasonable accommodations vary depending on the situation. An accommodation would not be considered reasonable if it causes undue hardship to the employer. Additionally, accommodations that conflict with occupational requirements for basic job performance would be limited.
In many cases, work can often be adjusted to allow an individual to participate in the labour force. Accommodations should never be imposed on employees. When parties collaborate equitably, they can find ways for the individual to complete their work. For instance, if a person with a mental health-related disability is unable to physically leave their house on some days, but can do their work from home, an accommodation could allow them to work from home on those particular days. If an employee with a mental illness needs to rest at home, then they can take steps to negotiate completing their work another way—modified work days, reduced hours, and changes to duties are types of workplace accommodations many people require and can be offered without causing undue hardship. Undue hardship is not simply a reduction in productivity or an inconvenience to the employer. If an employer is insulting or intimidating employees, or threatens disciplinary action or termination when an employee requests accommodations, this is a form of harassment and discrimination. If an employee feels they are not receiving accommodations they require or they are experiencing harassment and discrimination, they can file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
The stigma that persists against people with mental health-related disabilities is pervasive in the work force. Employers have a responsibility to create and maintain a healthy work environment. The Government of Canada has developed initiatives and partnerships to support organizations and individuals. There was also a National Disability Summit (2019) that helped shape the Accessible Canada Act, and most recently a Disability Inclusion Action Plan—all of which address people with mental health-related disabilities and employment in addition to other disabilities and topics. These are important steps, but they are not enough. If we are to see long-lasting change, each of us must also examine and challenge our own deeply-held beliefs about disability and mental illness and take steps to make our workplaces equitable.
Nicole is a mom of two courageous, independent kiddos and an advocate for neurodiversity awareness and disability rights. Her vision is to create barrier-free schools, work environments, and public spaces for marginalized individuals. As a neurodivergent individual, Nicole is compassionate yet fierce, striving for equity and understanding along her journey.