Case study: Accommodating panic attacks in the workplace

In 2006, PSAC won a case at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal involving a worker who had panic attacks at work. The decision gives some important guidelines on how employers should accommodate workers in these kinds of situations.

In Mellon v. Canada , the Tribunal ruled that the employer discriminated against a PSAC member  because of her disability (panic and anxiety attacks)  when they did not renew her term contract.

The facts

  • The member was a term employee at (then) Human Resources Development Canada.
  • She was experiencing panic and anxiety attacks due to stress at work.
  • Her doctor recommended that she stay off work for several weeks. The doctor testified at the hearing that she was also suffering from depression. The member had brought her medical condition to her employer's attention.
  • At the end of her term contract, the employer told the member that her contract would not be extended, for her own wellbeing as well as the functioning of the work unit.
  • When her term contract was not renewed, she filed a human rights complaint, claiming that her employer’s decision was based on the fact that she was suffering from panic and anxiety attacks.

The decision

  • The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that it was clear that the employer's decision not to renew the contract was influenced by the member's disability (panic attacks).
  • The Tribunal stated that the member's health or disability was in the employer's mind when it decided not to continue to employ her and that no efforts were made to accommodate her.

Mental health disabilities and medical information

This decision makes important points about mental health disabilities and the Canadian Human Rights Act:

  • It is not just the most serious or most severe mental health disabilities that are protected by the Act.
  • The Act can protect mental health disabilities that are both permanent and temporary.
  • An individual with a disability (and in particular, somebody with a mental health disability) may not know the exact nature and extent of their disability at the time they are experiencing the symptoms. Therefore, they are not expected to come forward with a diagnosis.
  • Medical evidence does need to be provided to show that there is a mental health disability.

Employer's duty

The decision also made some important points about the employer’s duty in cases like this:

  • Based on the events, the employer knew, or should have known, that the member was experiencing anxiety from work-related stress. It is not enough for the employer to say that they were not advised of the member's condition.
  • The employer must first find out if the member's condition might impact its decision to terminate her employment. The employer should have explored why the work was piling up and why the employee's performance was going down.
  • A disability can affect an employee's performance and this will usually require some accommodation.

Bottom line:

In cases where an employee has a mental health issue or illness that affects their work performance, an employer has a duty to inquire and find out how they can accommodate the worker before they make any decisions about future employment.

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December 12, 2011
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