Managing stress at work: a how-to for employers

Stress is not a buzzword. Stress can be both personal or workplace generated. There is good stress and bad stress, but the stress that affects most employees is workplace stress.  Work stress is now the leading cause of worker disability in Canada.

Workplace stress is usually a result of a combination of high demands and pressures and having little control over those demands.

Did you know that stress-related absences: 

  • Have increased more than 3-fold since 1995 (Statistics Canada)?
  • Cost our economy more than $4.5 Billion dollars each year (Statistics Canada)?
  • Are on average 20 days long?

Health Canada reports that every one dollar invested in stress prevention is worth $3.40 future savings.

What does stress really look like?

According to The Canadian Mental Health Association learning to recognize stress is essential because excessive stress has been linked to infectious diseases and cardiovascular problems, higher incidence of back pain, repetitive strain injuries, and cancer.

  • Changes in eating habits (weight gain or loss)
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco
  • Unusual impatience or irritation
  • Poor performance
  • Withdrawal from social contact
  • Reports of headaches, indigestion, fatigue, insomnia or frequent non-specific issues
  • Frequent absences
  • Miscommunication
  • Increased conflict between employees
  • Talk about "stress" and "pressure"

What are my duties as an employer?

An employer has a duty to investigate when there are obvious signs of stress. 

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy may not be sufficient for the case of preventing stress-related illnesses in the view of labour boards or the Human Rights Commission. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” means an employer doesn’t ask what is bothering an employee and the employee doesn’t tell the employer. 

When it comes to an employer’s responsibility towards preventing stress-related illnesses, The Human Rights Commission has become quite assertive in its expectations regarding the prevention and alleviation of stress-related absences.  Employers are expected to be vigilant and proactive.

Employers  have a duty to accommodate employees experiencing stress.  This includes personal stress if it affects work performance.

Note: Please be aware that this information does not apply as such to Quebec. For more details, contact us.

My employee is off, but I feel uninformed. What can I do?

Employers often will not get full disclosure on a note from the doctor when it comes to stress or other mental disabilities.  Employees usually feel these types of illnesses are very personal and are attached with a stigma. 

As an employer, you have the right to get reasonable medical details from the employee as it relates to your ability to accommodate their illness. 

If, as an employer you believe the medical information is unsatisfactory, you have a right to ask for clarification or further information.  However, it is your responsibility to explain to the employee why it is unsatisfactory, exactly what information you need to know and why.  Any request for additional medical information by an employer should be paid for by the employer.

You can only use medical information to manage the absence and  accommodate the employee. When collecting medical information, you must keep privacy in mind.


  • You need employee consent
  • Limit the collection to only necessary information
  • Keep medical information separate from personnel files
  • Limit the use, disclosure and retention so that it only applies to accommodation.

How can you accommodate stress? After all, it is an illness you can't see.

As an employer you can accommodate stress with the same approach you use for visible disabilities.  Some or all of the following accommodations may be required:

  • Sick leave
  • Reassignment
  • Re-bundling of tasks to provide meaningful work
  • Special equipment or revised expectations
  • Changes to workplace process or procedure
  • Flexible hours
  • Offer EAP (Employment Assistance Program)


Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation, not ideal accommodation. As an employer you are entitled to explore options of accommodation. 

Keep in mind accommodation is NOT:

  • Make work projects
  • Creation of new or unnecessary positions
  • Tolerance of disciplinable behaviour
  • Tolerance of excessive absenteeism
  • Keeping a position open indefinitely when there is no hope of the employee's return.