Aspiring Workforce

Written by: Bill Howatt and Michel Rodrigue

With labour shortages in Canada projected to reach two million workers by 2031, and rising rates of absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover, it is important for CEOs to explore innovative ways to recruit and retain a strong workforce. Luckily, there is an eager and highly qualified market you may have not have thought to tap into.

Aspiring Workers are those people who, due to mental illness, have been unable to enter the workforce, who are struggling to remain in the workforce due to episodic illness, or who wish to return to the workforce after a lengthy period of illness. They are also talented individuals who can help ease the workload burden and contribute significantly to your business.

Research has shown that there is a clear business case for hiring Aspiring Workers, with a significant return on investment for employers and accommodated workers alike.

People with mental illness can be successful

Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination often keep people with mental illness out of the workforce. Seventy to ninety percent of Canadians living with a serious mental illness are unemployed, and their skills and talents are often not recognized. This is partially due to the myths and misconceptions that people with mental illness are not ambitious, motivated, cannot handle stress, or are too sick to work.

While there are times when a person with mental illness needs time off work for treatment or recovery, this should not be treated any differently than someone needing time off to deal with a physical injury or illness. With support, a person with mental illness, even serious mental illness, can work well and make significant contributions, and often bring a unique perspective to solving problems. In fact, research has shown that people with mental illness who are working hold a wide range of jobs. Even those with serious mental illness hold jobs that require high levels of functioning.

We know that being gainfully employed is good for people’s mental health, and this includes people with mental health problems and serious mental illness. The lack of opportunities creates additional challenges for aspiring workers, while perpetuating stigma and discrimination in the process.

Tips for innovating around hiring and accommodating workers living with a mental health problem or illness:

Build an inclusive workplace culture - Diversity, equity and inclusion are key aspects of a positive workplace culture, and that includes accommodating for workers with mental health problems or illness. Draw on existing resources for help, such as the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, and the Practical Toolkit to Help Employers Build and Inclusive Workforce for guidance on how to recruit, hire and retain workers living with mental illness.

Review workplace policies and guidelines - Ensure your company policies and guidelines address proper communication and behaviour for civility and respect for all employees. These guidelines should also identify appropriate language versus language that can be offensive, rude, or disrespectful (intentionally or unintentionally).

Provide training for managers and supervisors - In addition to training to reduce stigma in the workplace, human resources, managers, supervisors, and others can benefit from training on how to provide flexibility and accommodation for people with mental health problems and mental illness. For example, there is now free training available for Supporting Autistic Mental Health in the Workplace.

Learn how to communicate with emotional employees - Some people with mental health problems or mental illness may find it more challenging to regulate their emotions. Learning strategies to communicate with clarity and collaboration, especially when employees are dealing with health or life stressors. Training such as Mental Health First Aid and The Working Mind are effective programs that can help.

Open the lines of communication - Employee involvement and consultation is a key component of collaboration, progress and success in the workplace. Asking employees with mental health problems or mental illness what they need to help them succeed and to overcome challenges can empower them to function well and support their overall well-being. This may include addressing physical aspects of the workplace such as access to sufficient sunlight and private areas to support focus and concentration. It may also include flexibility in schedules or deadlines, and guidance to accessing company benefits, tools, and other available resources.

Use tools to develop and document accommodation plans - When an employee requires accommodation, there should be an honest discussion between the employee and their supervisor. If needed, this might also include input from the employee’s health care provider. Guides such as Supporting Employee Success can be very helpful to work through possible stressors and triggers to support and co-develop a plan that works for both the employee and organization.

Establish peer support - Encouraging work teams to support one another, recognize when someone needs help, and celebrate successes goes a long way in building team morale and inclusivity. This is true for all employees, but even more so for those with mental health problems for illness who may feel excluded or undervalued.

Building a strong workforce takes time, but it also takes open-mindedness, appreciation for diversity, and investment in the right people. The aspiring workforce is filled with talented candidates whose unique skills and abilities often go unrecognized. As leaders, it's our job to cultivate those strengths, and empower workers to meet their full potential. Investing in these motivated, highly capable employees now will pay dividends long into the future.

Comments are closed.