Canadian laws could make employers leaders in helping mentally ill
February 4, 2005
Camille Bains, Canadian Press

VANCOUVER (CP) - Canada's human rights codes suggest the country could be a world leader when it comes to employers accommodating people with a mental illness, says a lawyer specializing in disability law.

But Patricia Bregman said the legislation must be better implemented and incorporated into the workplace so employees know their rights and employers don't discriminate against them.

Accommodating employees might mean allowing them to start work a couple of hours later if they take medication in the morning that interferes with their work or having them work from home if possible, she said.

Bregman, who was to speak about the issue Friday at a Canadian Mental Health Association conference, said the courts have recently used the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and progressive provincial human rights laws to hold more employers accountable for discriminating against workers with a mental illness.

"It's all about dignity, it's about stereotyping, it's about presumptions and the courts have said if you make a presumption that somebody can't do something because you think they have a disease or disability, that's discriminatory treatment.

"Canada is leading in the sense that we probably have the broadest anti-discrimination legislation on the face of it," said Bregman, who practices in Toronto.

Besides the charter, Canada has a federal human rights code that is limited to banks and telecommunications such as the CBC. Each province also has its own human rights code.

Human rights laws have helped to slowly shed the layers of secrecy surrounding mental illness as employers come to realize the lost productivity of people suffering from depression alone, which has recently been termed the disease of the millennium.

In fact, the World Health Organization predicts that by 2020 depression will be second only to heart disease as the leading cause of premature death and disability worldwide.

Bregman said smaller companies are often more prone to providing help for mentally ill employees because managers know their workforce and are in closer contact with them.

"People in larger companies go on long-term disability and don't come back."

But it's often the top brass of a company who make a difference to how people with a mental illness are treated, she said.

Former federal finance minister Michael Wilson, whose depressed son committed suicide in 1995, has taken his message of sympathy, early detection and treatment of mental disabilities to CEOs.

Bregman said people often don't disclose a mental illness because they fear they'll lose their job, even though human rights legislation in every province says employers are obligated to accommodate such people.

Compared to other countries, such as the United States and Australia, Canada leads the pack, with the United Kingdom making some strides after recently expanding its disability legislation to include mental illness, Bregman said.

She said lawyers she has talked to in other European countries are looking to Canada for its laws on the issue.

However, unlike other G-8 countries, Canada has no national policy to address mental health.

"I think that's what you need to bring together the lawyers, the scientists, the employers, experts and people with mental illness to sit down and talk about what the research is out there," Bregman said.

"It's a very new field so unlike the other areas of discrimination there hasn't been a lot of work in it and we do need to know what works and what doesn't."

Among the provinces, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are applying innovative programs to address discrimination in the workplace based on mental illness, Bregman said.

Quebec's occupational and safety legislation now includes psychological stress.

In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which could be passed in the spring, will bring together employers and people with disabilities to provide education on the issue.

B.C. is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has a minister of state for mental health.

Brenda Locke, who heads the ministry, said other jurisdictions, such as Alberta, have inquired about programs that aim to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

"We want to get both business and the unions and workers all trying to recognize that mental health, like physical health, is something that has to be addressed," Locke said.