Facing a mental health challenge? Support is available in your workplace
If you are facing mental health challenges, your union can help you. It can advocate for you and help you find out what options for treatment or time off you have.
Who to turn to
Your closest union contact is probably your steward. The steward is a member of your Local. In most unions, the steward’s role is to assist members with their rights under the collective agreement. The steward’s responsibilities include being an ally for members, working with you to ensure you get necessary accommodations, representing you in meetings with the employer, helping you understand your benefits, and making your return to work easier if you have to take time off.
If you don’t know who your steward is, ask other members of your Local or contact the MGEU Resource Centre. If you already know them, and are comfortable, you can also turn to other people in your union, like the elected members of your Local executive, or someone on the Health and Safety Committee.
Whoever you approach, make clear to them what you are comfortable having them disclose to your employer or co-workers. You have the right to privacy when it comes to your own medical information. You might feel that you want to talk about your mental health, but you don’t have to unless you choose to.
Discipline vs Self-Care
If you have mental health challenges, you might find yourself struggling at work. Maybe you are absent more often than usual, or work is piling up and you are falling farther and farther behind. Or maybe you are having a hard time dealing with trauma. Your manager might not understand what’s going on and could give you a warning or discipline you.
You should not have face discipline just because of your mental health. If this has happened to you, contact someone in your union so they can talk to your manager about stopping any discipline and making sure the employer understands this is a health issue. Your union can help you figure out what benefits you have available to support you and what accommodations you might need in workplace.
Your Options and Benefits
If you are not sure what is and isn’t covered by the benefits in your contract or your health plan, talk to your steward about understanding the benefits you can access to help you with your mental health issue. You can also contact the MGEU Resource Centre.
Employee Assistance Programs or Employee & Family Assistance Programs (EAP or EFAP)
Your steward can let you know or help you find out if your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP). It might also be posted in your workplace. EAPs offer short-term counselling at no cost to you. Programs vary, but usually cover four to six sessions with a trained counsellor. Depending on your situation, this may be enough. If you use up all your sessions, your EAP counsellor may be able to refer you to other resources or in some cases, you may be able to get further sessions if you request it and need further care.
EAP programs are typically delivered by third-party companies. You contact the EAP provider, who then gives you the name of a counsellor in your area. Many companies will allow you to make specific requests. For example, if you are more comfortable in a language other than English, ask if you can be referred to someone who speaks your language of choice.
EAPs are confidential. Your situation is kept in confidence and will not be shared with your employer or co-workers.
Does your job come with health benefits? If it does, find out if these include access to counseling, and a drug plan that can help cover the costs of medication like anti-depressants.
If you do have health benefits that will cover counseling, make sure you know exactly what is covered before you make an appointment. There are many different credentials for therapists, and some plans are limited in the types of counselors they will cover. They may be called psychotherapists, psychologists, social workers, or have another designation like registered counseling therapist. Not all health plans cover all counselors. Try to choose someone who is covered, so you don’t have to pay out of pocket. You should also find out what the annual maximum is that you can claim.
Some plans will cover counseling only if you have a referral from a doctor, so you may need to see a doctor to get a referral before going to see a therapist.
Your Family Doctor
Your family doctor will also be someone who can help you. Doctors can prescribe treatments like anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, and may also be able to refer you to more specialized resources in the public health system. They can direct you to publicly funded services like mood disorder or eating disorder clinics, for example. If your doctor works in a collaborative clinic, it’s possible that there is someone on staff who offers counseling. Your doctor can also help you identify whether or not you might need more specialized treatment. If you don’t have a family doctor, seeing a doctor at a walk-in clinic could also be helpful to you in getting help.
Taking time off work
Working when you are dealing with mental health challenges can be very difficult. It may also lead to other problems at work. If you are feeling depressed and overwhelmed, for example, you may find yourself not responding at your usual speed or falling farther behind in your work. Or you may simply be unable to face your regular tasks.
If you have sick days available, it’s better to take them than to try and push through when you are not feeling well. If your mental health care requires more time off, talk to the human resources department and find out what kind of sick time or short-term disability leave is available to you. You will likely need a doctor’s note if you have to take a longer time off work, but it will depend on your employer’s policies.
If you don’t have short-term disability, consider applying for Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits. EI sickness benefits will cover you for up to 15 weeks if you are temporarily not able to work because of illness, including mental illness. Find out more about applying for EI Sickness Benefits.
Many workers believe they have to tell their employer the reason that they are seeking time off work. This is not true. Your personal medical information is private, and you have the right to the privacy of your diagnosis, but you will need to let your employer know of any limitations you have in returning to work.
Two examples would be:
- You have a lot of fatigue and so need shorter hours temporarily; or
- You have trouble concentrating with a lot of noise and need a quiet place to work temporarily.
Your right to accommodation
Under Canadian law, employers have to make every reasonable effort to accommodate workers with disabilities, including mental illness in the workplace.
You may need your employer to make some changes or accommodations, so you can continue to do your job. Some people need permanent accommodations, but many people with mental health challenges will only need temporary measures to help them ease back into work. It’s also important to remember that mental illness is often episodic: People with depression don’t feel sad all the time, just as people with other mental illnesses don’t always experience symptoms.
It makes sense to have an accommodation plan for the future in place so that if you need it, it’s there.
You don’t have to tell your employer your diagnosis. You should work with your union steward to explain your specific needs and limitations that affect your work. You should have a doctor’s note to help with this.
Depending on your manager and employer, it can sometimes be hard to discuss these issues—especially if you are in recovery. Your union steward can advocate for you and help you talk to your employer.
Remember that accommodations are not a favour your employer is doing for you. They are a legal responsibility and duty for your employer. You have a responsibility as well to let your employer know what your needs are if you want to be accommodated.
Changes for accommodation
Let’s say you have anxiety that is affecting your work. You don’t have to tell this to your employer. But you need to give them enough information about your needs and limitations in order to accommodate you. Your doctor could say what you temporarily need:
- You have a lot of fatigue and so will need a graduated return to full hours;
- You are less resilient to stress currently and so need to be relieved temporarily of some of your most stressful duties;
- You have trouble concentrating currently and so will need to temporarily work on long-term projects instead of projects with tight deadlines;
- You sometimes need a break from a noisy work environment so you may need access to a quiet space for several times a day, when you need it.
Accommodations based on this information might help you stay in your current job and they don’t reveal your diagnosis.
You have a right to privacy when it comes to your medical information. Even if you have to take time off work, your employer does not need to know your diagnosis, and neither do your co-workers.
Of course, you will have to provide some information. If you need to take sick days or short-term leave, your doctor’s note specifying what you need should be enough. You only need to tell your employer about medical information that directly affects your ability to do your job.
Remember that people with many different physical illnesses may not choose to share that information with their union, co-workers or employers. The same is true for mental illness.
Examples of information your doctor might share
Let’s say you have anxiety that is affecting your work. You don’t have to tell this to your employer. But you need to give them enough information to accommodate you. Your doctor could say:
- You have a lot of fatigue and so will need a graduated return to full hours
- You are less resilient to stress currently and so need to be relieved temporarily of some of your most stressful duties
- You have trouble concentrating currently and so will need to temporarily work on long-term projects instead of projects with tight deadlines
- You sometimes need a break from a noisy work environment, so you may need access to a quiet space for several times a day, when you need it
Accommodations based on this information might help you stay in your current job, and they don’t reveal your diagnosis.
The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests different ways you can describe a mental health challenge. You could be very general (“a medical condition”) or specific (“bipolar disorder”).
Here are some ways you can describe a mental illness:
- Neurological problem
- Medical condition
- Biochemical imbalance
- Hard time with stress
- Mental illness
- Psychiatric disorder
- Psychological disability
- Or a specific diagnosis, like depression or PTSD.
Most people with a mental illness can be accommodated by the Duty to Accommodate law. Some workers with a mental illness like PTSD may have their illness be brought on or greatly affected by a workplace incident or a series of incidents. In some provinces, there is now specific workers’ compensation coverage for some workers with PTSD. You should talk to your union representative if this is the case and they will help guide you as to whether you filing a workers’ compensation claim is appropriate. There is also coverage in some provinces for violence, harassment, stress or harm to psychological well-being that happens in the workplace—if these are significant factors then filing a claim for worker’s compensation maybe appropriate.
There is a growing recognition that workplaces can be a direct cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is generally harder to prove that a mental illness is a workplace injury, because there are so many factors involved. For example, a high-stress environment may contribute to an episode of mental illness, but it’s not easy to demonstrate the connection.
In Manitoba, if a worker “is exposed to certain types of traumatic events and is diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the WCB can presume the PTSD is caused by the worker’s employment, unless the contrary is proven.”
In other words, it is not up to the worker to prove that the workplace caused PTSD. This legislation applies to all workers, and not just first responders – Manitoba is the first province to provide this coverage for all workers.
Learn more about the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) and PTSD