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When the Workplace Breaks You Down

By Donna Hardaker
Network, Summer 2008

It’s my first day back from sick leave. I feel good. The new medication is working and my mood is stable. I woke up with positive thoughts about the day, and although I’m feeling somewhat anxious, I am happy to be returning to work and I feel confident that I can do my job again. I’ve met with my supervisor and we’ve got a plan to ease me back in with accommodations around changing some of my tasks and having flexible hours. I feel so lucky to be working with people who care about helping me get back to work.

Employment is a social determinant of health and is a key factor in the recovery process for people who have a mental illness. Working gives us identity, routine, purpose and a sense of belonging. The physical act of “going to work” — getting up, washing, dressing, commuting to the workplace — instills a recovery mindset in an employee who has been home on sick leave or disability. Home is where people are unwell. Work is where people are functioning and participating in meaningful interaction, often with a high degree of social involvement.

I do deep breathing to overcome anxiety while riding in the elevator to the 18th floor. How can people so easily trust that this little box will safely get us hundreds of feet up in the air? I’m sweating and shaking a little by the time I get to my floor.

Anxiety is a common symptom not only for anxiety disorders, but also for many other mental illnesses. When someone is in recovery, it is more easily triggered than when a person is well. People who have high levels of anxiety may be less able to trust that mechanical devices, such as elevators, will function safely. Anxiety makes people feel fearful of things that others take for granted.

When I enter the office, I walk towards my cubicle. People greet me warmly and welcome me back. It’s so good to be here! I sit at my desk and read a stack of reports. My manager and I decided that this would be a good way for me to get caught up. After about twenty minutes, I notice I seem to be straining to read. The fluorescent lights are bright. I stop reading and rub my forehead between my eyes where it hurts.

Fluorescent bulbs produce short-wave light through a rapid on-off sequence. This flickering is not supposed to be detectable by the human eye. However, studies have shown that some people seem to “sense” the flickering and experience negative physical effects (see below). Other research into the effects of short-wave light has shown that it has a negative effect on the neurotransmitters in the human brain responsible for regulating sleep, mood and appetite — the same neurotransmitters that are already out of balance in people who have a mental illness.

Problem: Flickering Light


  • Install full-spectrum lights or place filters over fluorescent lighting to simulate natural light.
  • Adjust all computer monitors to over 60 Hz refresh rate to reduce visible flicker.

I hear the loud hiss of the ventilation system. I can hear the different sounds within it: a high whine, a jagged rattling and a low vibrating rumble. I try to ignore it, but the sound is so irritating. There’s a breeze from the vent that blows cool air onto the back of my head. It’s uncomfortable. The back of my head hurts.

Ventilation systems are not designed for the comfort and ease of individuals in the workplace, but rather for the larger movement of air through a communal space. Placing physical barriers, such as buffers, into vents can cause interruption in the flow of air, affecting temperature and the freshness of air moving through a large space. The noise created by ventilation systems is usually not addressed unless it breaks health and safety guidelines for dangerous levels that may harm the human ear. Ambient white noise and rattling of vents most likely does not contravene the guidelines, yet can cause great distress among people who have sensory sensitivities.

Problem: Persistent Sounds


  • Experiment with filters for air vents to decrease white noise.
  • Since filters can interfere with air flow, consult with building maintenance to get them onside in creating a comfortable workspace. Make this part of your rental contract.

Then I smell a strong burning odour. Someone has made toast in the staff kitchen and the smell is overpowering. I feel queasy, and this makes me feel a bit afraid. Am I going to throw up? Am I going to embarrass myself my first day back? Am I not well enough to be here?

Kitchens in workplaces create ease and comfort for employees. Kitchens can also be a source of odour. For some people, strong odours like burning food can cause an unpleasant physical and emotional reaction.

Problem: Strong Odours


  • Install a kitchen door and a ventilation fan to prevent odours from wafting through the office space.

Then I hear loud laughter from over the cubicle wall. I can hear people talking, but I can’t make out what they are saying. I think I hear my name, and more laughter. I feel anxious and my head hurts. I begin to have negative thoughts telling me that I should never have come back, that I’m weak and stupid.

Half-walls, baffles and cubicles can distort the sound of voices. This can cause great distress for someone who may be experiencing low self-esteem, a common symptom of many mental illnesses. Paranoid thoughts — from extreme to mild — are common among people who have a mental illness.

Problem: Over-Stimulation


  • Create a “relaxation room” with comfortable furniture and dim lights to allow people a refuge from the stimulation of the communal office space.

I run to the washroom for privacy to do the mental exercises that I learned in cognitive behavioural therapy. This takes about ten minutes. I feel a bit calmer, but now I’m anxious about being in the washroom for so long.

Many workplaces lack private space for individuals. Lack of privacy may prevent people from being able to implement strategies for self care, like relaxation exercises. It also prevents people from controlling levels of sensory stimulation, like noise, light and odour.

Problem: Lack of Privacy


  • Consider how to allot office space to give individuals more access to privacy.

I’m now late for the department meeting. I have to squeeze past people to get to a vacant chair in the back of the windowless meeting room. I’m sure they can see how I’m sweating and shaking. We are crowded in here. I see nothing’s changed since I left — we still have to cram into this small meeting room because the board room is only for senior managers. I feel so uncomfortable, I can barely breathe. Everyone else seems okay. I wish I wasn’t like this!

Allocation of workspace demonstrates the value system of an organization. Generally, people who are “higher up” in the hierarchy of the workplace have greater access to work spaces with comfortable physical space and natural light.

Problem: No Access to Natural Light


  • Increase access to windows by leaving space between office walls that line the perimeter of the floor.
  • Consider windows to be a priority and an accessibility issue when considering the cost of space.

Everyone is being really kind, but I can barely manage a weak smile as I head back to my desk. I feel sick. I feel anxious. I feel exhausted. I feel like a failure. My first day back has been a disaster.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

The environment of this workplace is a barrier to accessibility for this employee.

Awareness of the rights of people with disabilities to equal and fair treatment in the workplace is higher than it has ever been in Ontario. But how far are employers expected to go in being aware of barriers and making changes in the physical environment of the workplace? Are elements like fluorescent lights, loud ventilation fans and lack of privacy significant enough barriers to warrant the cost of changing or adapting the workplace?

The Ontario Human Rights Code would suggest that this employee has the right to accommodation at work that would include changes to the physical environment to allow the employee to participate fully. And theAccessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) says that employers will have to identify, remove and prevent barriers to accessibility in the coming years. This pertains to workplace practices and policies, and to the built environment of the workplace. Accessibility audits for the built environment are exposing barriers primarily for people who have mobility and visual disabilities. The AODA gives employers the opportunity and the mandate to raise their awareness and make changes.

Yet mental illness as a disability is often not included in discussions of disability. Accessibility surveys, plans and audits rarely include the needs of people who have a mental illness — even though the rates of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety continue to rise, even though the Ontario Human Rights Code and the AODA include mental illness as a disability, and even though mental illness contributes significantly to disability benefit costs. As Ontario moves towards creating a more inclusive society for people with disabilities, advocates in the mental health sector must continue to raise awareness of mental illness as a disability to ensure that people who have a mental illness can also benefit from the positive, progressive changes to come.

Donna Hardaker works at CMHA York Region Branch where she delivers the Mental Health Works program.

Fast Facts


Percentage of Canadian workers who believe that it is easier for workplaces to deal with physical disabilities than with mental health conditions.


Percentage of Canadian workers who have been either diagnosed with depression or believe they have an undiagnosed condition of depression.


Percentage of Canadian workers who are aware of any specific guidelines or policies in their workplace for dealing with or accommodating people with mental health conditions.

(Source: Mental Health in the Workplace, Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, 2007)

When Noxious Light is an Accessibility Barrier

Fluorescent lighting is cheap and efficient and is the most common form of lighting found in public spaces, including offices, schools, stores and hospitals. It produces short-wave light that is different from full-spectrum natural light created by the sun. Studies have shown that extended exposure to short-wave light decreases positive mood status and workplace performance. Studies have also found that fluorescent lights trigger seizures, headaches and fatigue.

Many workplaces are “cubicle cities” lit with fluorescent bulbs, with most workers located away from natural light because walled offices (generally inhabited by people higher up in the hierarchy) line the windowed perimeter, blocking off natural light. People who work on higher floors with greater access to natural full-spectrum light experience fewer health effects related to fluorescent lights than people who work on lower floors with less natural light. Employers may enjoy the low cost and efficiency of fluorescent light to the detriment of the health of employees and others who are exposed to it for long periods of time.

Ramps, widened doorways and accessible washrooms are now understood as necessary in every workplace to ensure accessibility. Perhaps in the future, employers may be required to replace fluorescent lighting, not just as an accommodation for individuals, but as a proactive and preventative measure.

Effects of the AODA for Non-profit Service Providers

Non-profit service providers face constant budget challenges and often try to cut program costs by using cheaper space, like basements or windowless areas. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) may be interpreted to mean that windowless spaces create a barrier for clients and employees who have a mental illness, just as if a client or an employee who uses a wheelchair was expected to climb a flight of stairs. Service providers may need to take this into consideration when budgeting in the future. For more information about the AODA, visit


Find out more about the rights of people with mental health disabilities in the workplace:

Ontario Human Rights Commission
Access the Ontario Code and other information about discrimination and Ontario’s human rights process.

Accessibility Directorate of Ontario (ADO)
The ADO website includes information about the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and the accessibility standards that will eventually apply to the public, private and non-profit sectors. Standards are being developed for the areas of employment, customer service, transportation, information and communications, and the built environment.

Mental Health Works
Mental Health Works helps organizations to manage their duty to accommodate employees experiencing mental health disabilities such as depression or anxiety in the workplace.

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