SUMMARY:When an employee is accommodated for a disability or returning to work after a leave, it can be important to address co-worker concerns or reactions to support a mentally healthy work environment for all.

Co-worker reactions can significantly impact the success of an accommodation or return to work. While it is important to refrain from sharing personal information about an employee, you can privately address the issues of individual co-workers.

Assess the situation

  • What does the co-worker already know or think they know about the situation?

    Even with the requirement for confidentiality in the workplace, it is not unusual for others to be at least partially aware of the reason for absence or accommodation of a co-worker. Sometimes it is that the employee chooses to share and sometimes it is that the co-workers make assumptions. If the reason is related to a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, people may react to the myths and stereotypes of the illness with discomfort or fear. Consider if there is a broader need for mental health education or stigma reduction training.

  • What has the co-worker experienced that may be impacting their concern?

    While the employer may largely be focused on their responsibilities to accommodate the employee’s return to work, the process can be much more complicated when co-workers have strong reactions to the employee who is returning. This is especially true if conflict or performance problems were issues prior to the leave.

  • What are they concerned might be a problem going forward?

    Co-workers may be experiencing fear, anxiety or frustration if they had been involved in conflict with the employee, exposed to emotional outbursts, or if their workload has been impacted by the situation. Even if these fears are unfounded, they still have the potential to negatively impact both the co-worker and the employee who is returning. Seek to understand exactly what the fears are.

  • How do they feel they might interact with employee going forward?

    Co-workers may feel uncertain about how or if to approach their colleague. If the returning employee is experiencing shame, embarrassment or fear, these feelings can make interactions with co-workers difficult.

Related to this issue, you may want to share Talking to co-workers with the employee who is returning to work. It provides some suggestions to take control of this situation to make it easier for all concerned.

Address fears or concerns

  • Investigate the validity of any fears.

    In many cases, fears are unfounded or exaggerated, but the impact on co-workers can still be serious and should not be ignored. Unfounded fears can be addressed through education. If there is some degree of validity to the fears, create a plan that includes safeguards and processes to alleviate or minimize the risks.

  • Be clear with all stakeholders about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.

    Whether an employee has mental health issues or not, violent, threatening or harassing behaviour should never be acceptable in the workplace. Engage all staff to create a specific and measurable list of what behaviours cross the line of acceptability. Research shows that people with mental health issues are no more likely to be violent than the general population and are significantly more likely to be victims of violence. (Source: Canadian Mental Health Association)

  • Communicate the plan for promptly responding to inappropriate behaviour.

    Ensure staff are aware of the protocol for advising management should any employee exhibit aggressive or other anti-social behaviour. Management should have a protocol to respond when reports are made. Staff should be reassured that their safety is important and is being protected. See Harassment and Bullying Prevention.

  • Assure all employees that their right to a safe workplace will be protected.

    As noted above, clarify that all employees have a right to a safe work environment and that there are processes in place to help ensure their safety. Mental Health First Aid provides a general set of recommendations about how you can help someone who may be experiencing serious mental illness.

Address other co-worker issues

  • Resolve any outstanding conflicts

    The ability to address existing hurts, misunderstandings, preconceived judgments or fears can be important to the employee’s successful return to work. Find out what would be reasonably necessary for the co-workers to move forward toward a healthier work relationship. There is a significant difference between deciding who is right or wrong and finding a way forward. The former often leads to people defending their positions and the latter allows each party to ‘save face’ while finding a way to leave past hurts behind and change behaviour going forward. See Resolving Conflict for a process that addresses conflict while protecting the dignity of everyone involved.

  • Reduce accusations of bullying and harassment

    Psychologically Safe Interactions provides a set of resources to help engage the entire team in developing awareness of how workplace behaviours may be interpreted as bullying, even when that wasn't the intention.

  • Improve workplace culture

    It may be that the co-workers do not have a specific problem with each other, but if the workplace environment is generally one of chronic stress, tension, chaos or anxiety, you may want to recommend a broader approach to recognizing and addressing organizational or systemic issues, such as the approach offered through Guarding Minds @ Work, or facilitate a session on Organizational Culture using On the Agenda. You also can review Organizational Culture for questions to help identify potential risks as well as areas of strength and ideas for developing and maintaining a psychologically safe organizational culture.

  • Address the impact on the workload of co-workers.

    You must protect the personal information of the employee who is returning to work, but it is still reasonable to include co-workers in a discussion of the work-related tasks and the extent to which an accommodation or graduated return-to-work plan could impact them. For example, if co-workers will have to take on some of the returning employee’s duties, you may wish to involve them in how they can integrate this with their current responsibilities, set priorities, or share these duties among team members.

  • Consider the how any of the employee’s performance issues may impact co-workers.

    Resentment from having to take on or correct a co-worker’s work can create resentment that may be more harmful than the task itself may have been for the employee. Consider the reaction of co-workers when developing accommodation plans that will affect them. In some cases, the returning employee can provide you with insight to anticipated co-worker reactions as well as alternatives that may be better received. If it is not brought up in the conversation it can potentially result in unexpected negative consequences.

  • Be clear that working together professionally is a condition of employment

    Ultimately, co-workers and the returning employee must understand that they have a duty to be professional in their working relationships and to refrain from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. There is no requirement to be friends or to trust each other. The only requirement is professional and psychologically safe interactions. Inclusivity and Discrimination offers more information to help address this issue.

  • Be prompt and consistent in addressing any future issues

    Allowing problematic, harassing, discriminating or aggressive behaviour for any reason has the potential of harming the mental health of those subjected to it at work. Sometimes there is a tendency to "medicalize" performance or behaviour issues. While it is necessary to respect the confidentiality of an employee's personal medical information, this does not preclude addressing, in an appropriate manner, any inappropriate behaviour of any employee. This can help reduce the risk of relapse for the employee who has experienced mental illness while also improving workplace culture.

Adapted with permission from an article written by Mary Ann Baynton for the Ontario Occupational Health Nurses Association.