Managing mental health leaves and accommodations in the workplace

Supporting the mental health of employees has become an important reality for employers — not only as a recruitment tool, but to keep current employees engaged and lessen the chances of fatigue and burnout. After enduring nearly three years of heightened stress and workloads related to COVID-19, no workplace is immune to mental health challenges.

According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of employees with a mental health-related disability increased from 6.4% in 2019 to 8.7% in 2021. So even where employers take a proactive approach to supporting mental health, they may experience an increase in both mental health-related leaves of absence and the need to accommodate employees.

Employers have a legislated and common law obligation to engage in the accommodation process when an employee has workplace restrictions and to accommodate those restrictions to the point of undue hardship. Often the restriction is a complete inability to attend work, necessitating a medical leave of absence. Overall, it is a good thing employers have these obligations placed upon them, so that employees have some legal protection from losing their job as a result of mental health challenges.

However, in some cases, employers that abide by these obligations are put into an uncomfortable position. Accommodating an employee with a leave of absence can put tremendous strain on an employer’s business. This can be especially true for smaller employers with only a few employees who all play important roles.

Managing your legal obligations can make you feel handcuffed whenever you receive a medical note from one of your employees seeking a leave of absence. While such requests will in most circumstances need to be approved, there are several steps you can take to better manage these requests and keep your business operating smoothly.

1. Carefully review the medical documentation and determine if further information is needed

You are entitled to seek additional information from your employee about their mental health injury or illness necessitating a leave of absence. This is particularly true where the leave of absence is for a longer period of time (a number of months, for example) or is extended without further explanation. You can typically request information on the nature of the restrictions caused by the illness, whether the employee is receiving treatment and the prognosis for their return to work, with or without restrictions. This information, especially the prognosis, will assist you in contingency planning for your business, ensuring you have proper coverage and facilitating the employee’s eventual return for work.

2. Leave a line of communication open with the employee and seek regular updates

Keeping in regular but respectful communication with the employee allows you to be aware of any changes in the employee’s restrictions. Often, employers do not keep a consistent line of communication open, which creates more uncertainty for both parties. Checking in every three months (or sooner if the employee’s medical note is set to expire) will keep you on top of the employee’s current restrictions, which may present opportunities for the employee to return on a gradual basis or with restrictions in place.

3. Advertise for and hire/engage temporary employees to ensure proper coverage

While an employee on medical leave is normally entitled to their old position or an equivalent position upon their return, there is nothing stopping you from hiring a temporary or term employee to cover the employee while they are on leave. You are not required to leave the position unfilled for the duration of the employee’s absence.

4. Cross-train employees to perform duties outside their normal position

It can be difficult to hire temporary staff, so you can also cross-train your workforce to have another employee seamlessly take over the work performed by the person on the leave.

Once an employee is able to return to work, they may have restrictions that need to be accommodated as part of their return (such as specific break times, a gradual return to the full time schedule, etc.). You are required to accommodate these restrictions to the point of undue hardship, but it is important to remember that the actual accommodation is selected by you, not the employee or their doctor.

A doctor provides the medical restrictions. The employer then takes that information and determines if the restrictions can be accommodated and what the accommodation looks like. Employees cannot demand their ideal accommodation and are obligated to work with the employer and the accommodations it puts in place.

If you have questions about a current leave of absence taken by an employee or need guidance on the accommodation process for an employee, contact a member of the MLT Aikins Labour & Employment team.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.