Dr. Donna Ferguson

The relationship between and mental health and work can be complex. Stress can certainly exacerbate mental illness for some people. Individuals who suffer from mental illness may, at times, hide away from work, using physical illness as an excuse for example. Others will go to work sporadically but won’t engage with colleagues or supervisors, or do so sparingly. On any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians will not go to work because of mental illness.

Dealing with mental illness can be a heavy burden for some particularly those struggling with a mental health diagnosis, regardless of the specific issue. There are a number of disorders that are common and can be quite difficult for people to deal with particularly while trying to work, for example being diagnosed with either a depressive or an anxiety disorder.


Some people diagnosed with depression may have difficulty with task performance. Someone experiencing depressed mood may find it challenging to manage work responsibilities, including sustaining effort over time and dealing with change.

Other factors may come into play when someone is dealing with depression. Sadness, irritability or emotional numbing can make it harder to do the job and tolerate or even enjoy it. Thinking and rumination can make it difficult to concentrate and make decisions, negatively impacting accuracy and confidence on the job. This can lead to avoidance of co-workers or frequent conflict, preventing successful teamwork and making the workplace less supportive.

Finally, physical health factors like reduced energy level and disrupted sleep make it difficult to keep up with job demands. Physical symptoms may further undermine workplace performance and attendance. 

Anxiety Disorders

Being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder will impact performance in similar, but slightly different ways. An individual diagnosed with social anxiety, for example, may turn down a promotion or other growth opportunities because it involves travel or public speaking or just engaging socially with others. Due to anxiety, they may make excuses to not attend office parties, staff lunches, and other events and meetings with coworkers.

For many of us, deadlines are an important part of the workplace environment, but also a source of stress. Someone dealing with an anxiety disorder may have irrational thoughts about performance or quality of work when under extreme duress, which may further cause them to miss these deadlines.

People who have been diagnosed with panic disorder may find it especially challenging, as symptoms can be difficult to manage while you are at work. For some, the thought of having a panic attack in front of your coworkers, your boss or supervisor might make things worse.

Taking steps to facilitate a healthy workplace for yourself

If you are returning to work after a leave of absence related to mental illness, consider negotiating a graduated return-to-work with your employer. This may mean initially returning only two to three days a week, for shorter workdays.

Be clear with your employer about what workplace situations cause stress, and how they can be addressed. For example, if you find long meetings difficult, tell your employer that you may have to take frequent breaks or leave the room periodically, and you will sit close to the door so you don’t disturb others. 

Employers and employees benefit from fostering a psychologically healthy and inclusive work environment as well as knowledge and support. 

How do we deal with a colleague who opens up about mental illness?

It is important to be as supportive as possible. If a colleague opens up to you, you may want to ask if there is anything they might need or if they want to talk. Sometimes they may just need to talk about the issue and it might be possible to do so without delving too much into their personal matters.

It is also important not to judge or stigmatize your colleague. Try to be understanding, and if the individual decides to divulge issues to you, offer some potential resources if you aware of any. Encouraging the individual to see their family physician for support, or advice and a possible appropriate referral for further treatment options (i.e., a psychiatrist or psychologist/therapist) if appropriate.

It is important to find out what the standards and protocols are in the workplace. If a person leaves work on a mental health leave/medical leave, are you able to contact them at home or through your social networks? And if so, how much can you ask the individual about what is going on with them? It is thus important to consider giving the individual the privacy they need and deserve.

Mental illness in the workplace is a growing topic, and it needs to be an area that is receives ongoing attention and research. As we continue to drive the conversation forward, the need for workplace mental health strategies to be put into place will become more apparent. But as the saying goes, “It takes a village…”, and by familiarizing ourselves with the basics, employees and employers alike can begin to shape healthier, happier places of employment that further promote improved mental wellness.


By Dr. Donna Ferguson

Clinical Psychologist