Originally published on July 4, 2017
Governments and employers have been working hard over recent years to deal with mental health and its stigma in society[i], including in Canada.
Encouragingly, employees’ understanding and awareness of mental health conditions in the workplace has grown significantly over the last ten years[ii]. This change in perception is important, given that one in five of Canada’s working age population will experience a mental health illness within their lifetimes[iii], with more than 6.7 million Canadians currently living with a mental health problem or illness[iv]. While February’s Ipsos poll revealed a decline in the number of Canadians who describe their workplace as being “psychologically unhealthy and unsafe”, the development of evidence-based strategies to mitigate the impact of mental health conditions on workplaces is still in its infancy.
Given the above, investigators need to be mindful of the potential for mental health conditions to present as a relevant factor in any workplace investigation. Some specific examples include the following:
- Diagnosed Mental Health Disorder
People with diagnosed Mental Health Disorders could misinterpret reality and facts. For example, a respondent could report events that did not occur, such as receiving secret or subtle flirtations from a complainant. A witness could impose meaning on an action that is not justified, such as believing marketing photographs were taken for reasons other than a company brochure. A complainant could purport malicious intent to an action that was simply careless.
A diagnosis can complicate several aspects of an investigation, particularly when uncovering facts, determining responsibility, and recommending next steps, leaving some investigators unsure about how to hold people accountable within an accommodation strategy. Gathering tangible evidence and conducting thorough fact-checking will corroborate statements and uncover misinterpretations to avoid relying on skewed or questionable data.
- Non-Diagnosed Mental Health Disorder
Occasionally a party’s behaviour may give rise to concerns of an undiagnosed or undisclosed mental health condition. This can be especially concerning when behaviour is framed as erratic, malicious, non-voluntary, or potentially violent. Investigators need to recognize when people are using this language and drill down to get clarity on the specifics of incidents. A disadvantage of the increased social awareness is the increasing use of mental health language and characteristics to impute negative intent, to excuse adverse impact, or to attempt escalating organizational responsiveness.
There are however, occasions where people use generalized language such as ‘crazy’ to express fear for their physical safety, when they do not have other ways to talk or cannot explain why they are fearful. To address these concerns, investigators should have at least a basic understanding of the signs and symptoms of potential violence and self-harm. Expertise can then be sought to conduct a proper violence risk assessment particularly when the investigator does not have the necessary experience.
Occasionally, an investigator will be faced with an accommodation plan built from vague, ambiguous, or even outlandish doctor’s recommendations. While a doctor should protect personal medical details, some employers do not understand that they can request certain information to build a holistic accommodation plan.
Investigators can often assist by identifying to the employer unhelpful or impractical accommodation plans to better support a healthy productive workplace.
- Investigation Process and Practices
Investigations themselves are not without stress and discomfort for parties and/or witnesses. Drawn out processes, invasive evidence gathering, and repeated interviewing can create a sufficiently stressful environment to exacerbate symptoms, or contribute to onset for those predisposed to certain conditions.
Techniques and processes that invite parties to relive problematic events can traumatize parties and witnesses alike, potentially as much as the original incident. An appropriate (ie. non-accusatory) interviewing style is of paramount importance for witness health and wellness.
In addition to creating personal and familial distress, impacting an individual’s income, productivity, and career, the prevalence of mental illness can impact the productivity and relationships within teams. While the considerations above are brought to the foreground with mental health concerns, investigators should be mindful of such factors in every instance.
Mental health support structures offer additional care and accountability frameworks throughout and following an investigation. Investigators serve an important role in identifying for employers the mechanisms that contribute to a safe, healthy, and inclusive society.
[i] Examples include the introduction of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, the Federal government’s commitment to invest $5 billion over 10 years to support mental health initiatives, and the indigenous youth focused Strengthening Wellness Education to Love Life (SWELL) program.
[ii] 2017 Ipsos poll indicates that the percentage of employees who indicate they know awareness some or a lot about mental health conditions such as depression have jumped from 66% to 79% since 2007.