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How to ask for a mental health accommodation at work

An outside sales executive is struggling with focus at work and finding difficulty being positive about anything. This preoccupation and negative mindset are beginning to affect her job performance. She realizes she needs help, which is a good step, but she has no idea where to begin. She’s apprehensive about telling her employer of her struggles, in fear of consequences like judgment, demotion or even dismissal.

The good news for this employee is that employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate a disability, including mental health-related issues. Here’s what she needs to know about accommodation and how to request it.


It’s important to understand that mental health is a spectrum. You can have poor mental health, but not a diagnosed mental illness, and you can be in a state of positive mental health while living with a mental illness.

Mental health includes substance misuse and addictions. The difference between these is that substance misuse is the harmful use of substances, while addictive behaviours are compulsive behaviour despite negative consequences. Addictive behaviours also may not be substance related, such as excessive gaming or shopping.

As an employee, you’re not required to share specific details of your health issue, such as diagnosis, type of disability or symptoms. You do, however, need to provide enough information to facilitate accommodation, such as what you perceive your workplace limitations to be, supported by an opinion from a medical doctor. A mental health disability can affect an individual’s life or job performance just as much as a physical disability. It’s the employer’s responsibility to treat mental health disabilities appropriately.

“While it’s difficult to approach your employer with a mental health concern, the reality is mental health-related disabilities are the leading cause of disability claims in Canada,” said Lawrence Blake, project manager for Mental Health Works at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario. “If you feel safe to do so, start the conversation with as much detail about your disability as you’re comfortable, but remember you’re not required to disclose everything. Understand your rights and focus on what would make your workplace more conducive to your well-being.”


Each province has guidelines around disability. In Ontario, the Accessible Employment Standard, as outlined in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, requires employers to communicate accessibility policies by whatever means available, such as newsletters, e-mails, memos and meetings. Organizations are required by law to communicate policies to employees when they’re hired, if a policy changes, and whenever the information is requested.

Ontario’s Accessible Employment Standard includes six minimum employer requirements related to: accessibility in hiring, workplace information, performance management, policy communication, accommodation plans, and the return-to-work process. This standard protects employee rights.

Beyond the Accessible Employment Standard, the Mental Health Commission of Canada has developed a national standard for creating a psychologically healthy workplace. While not a legal requirement, many organizations have chosen to implement this framework to enhance psychological health in the workplace. The commission’s standard lists 13 psychosocial factors workplaces can address to enhance employee psychological and physical safety, employee experience and organizational efficiency.


Once an employee gains an understanding of their rights and workplace’s policies on accommodation, they should start the conversation by asking for a private meeting. They shouldn’t feel the need to disclose everything, while understanding that their employer must be made aware of the request for an accommodation.

An accommodation isn’t about treating a disability; it’s about managing symptoms. After the first conversation with their employer, the employee will need to speak with their primary care provider to get input on an effective accommodation, based on their medical condition.

They can share this information with their employer and start working on an accommodation plan. The plan may require a few attempts in order to get it right. Through this process, the employee needs to be honest, and communicate when adjustments need to be made. Regular check-ins are an effective way to manage an accommodation plan.

For more information on workplace accommodation, Mental Health Works has a new resource, Mental Health in the Workplace: An Accommodation Guide for Managers and Staff, available for free at

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada

Camille Quenneville is the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario Division

You can find other stories like these at

The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2019 winners of the award at this link and watch a video from the winners here.

Registration for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award is now open. Register at this link.

For more information about the award go to You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2018 at this link here.


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Bill Howatt

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