Dealing with Mental Illness in the Workplace
Matilda the Star retreats to the bathroom where she silently cries. As you enter, she brushes the tears away and mumbles something about allergies as she rushes out. She is already a few days late on the sales proposal you are working on with her and she hasn’t made it to work on time in days. She is generally hung over and exhausted. When she isn’t complaining, she is sullen. You are tired of all the work being shifted to you and decide enough is enough and go to your supervisor.
Walter the Wimp Supervisor listens, clearly tired of you and her. He had noticed Matilda in meetings; he’d ask a direct question and get rambling answers. Walter final confronts her. She gazes past him and then bursts into tears as she runs to her cubical, but not before he tells her to snap out of it and get back on track or he will fire her.
October is Mental Illness Awareness Month
In this country, mental illness is the number one cause of disability for people 18 to 44 years of age. It cost employers an estimated $44 billion in lost productivity. Mental illness is just that—it’s an illness. Learning about mental illness helps remove the barriers that exist and the stigma.
As co-workers and employers, we can take steps to understand this complex problem in our workplace. But it doesn’t end there—if 1 of 5 families experience mental illness, it means many of our friends and our loved ones are struggling, undiagnosed, or fighting for recovery, and sadly they may be facing this alone because of our ignorance or bias.
You come to work on time, do your work and now you are covering for Matilda the Star. You have suspected something is wrong. What do you do?
First, don’t assume your co-worker has mental illness if they behave strangely or you observe changes in their performance or attitude. It’s not you or your employer’s role to diagnosis. Your supervisor may know that she is experiencing mental illness, but that is private medical information and not something your employer will disclose to you. Laws protect her privacy just as they protect yours.
If your co-worker confides in you but she hasn’t sought help:
Encourage her to seek professional assistance—your company Employee Assistance Program may be a free confidential start.
Be respectful of the confidence shared with you—don’t take what you might perceive as a tasty gossip tidbit and run out to tell everyone.
You can support her but don’t enable her—she is still accountable for her choices and a completing the work even if she experiences mental illness.
She needs the intervention of mental health professionals. Remember that you can’t fix her or her work performance problems. It’s easy to want to avoid your colleague, but think how you would feel if it was you or a friend or loved one—be supportive. If you are worried, don’t hesitate to talk to your supervisor or Human Resources when you observe a steady stream of changes or some dramatic change in behavior, especially if she discloses that she might harm herself or others.
As an employer, you already know that that there are legal protections for the employee experiencing mental illness if specific thresholds are met. Mental illness in the workplace effects everyone—the employee, the co-workers and you as an employer. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act (if they apply to your workplace) offer protection for you as an employer and for your employee. Yes, these laws do protect you as an employer, despite common thinking that they are all about the employee—it’s how you look at them.
Your initial reactions to claims might include the cost, whiny co-workers if there is an accommodation, and work not being completed—Matilda the Star now controlling the work place and department productivity—not you. But you are already dealing with the cost of mental illness—untreated mental illness results in more general health services cost then those seeking treatment. Mental Illness is the 2nd leading cause of work place absenteeism. Remember: when an employee is absent, it still costs you money. Upon a diagnosis and treatment; 3 out of 4 employees (your neighbors, your friends, your children) see substantial improvement in their work performance.
Employers can help themselves and their employees. Losing talent is expense. Don’t pat yourself on the back for doing what is right (in many cases you are just compliant with the laws) when you work with an employee. You are acting as a responsible employer by preserving the employment of a good employee—but it’s good economics.
Every employee you lose costs on average 1½ times their annual salaries in lost productivity, institutional knowledge, and workplace morale.
Keep in mind that your employees are not required to disclose their illness—if their work deteriorates, simply hold your employee accountable to completing the work. You have no duty to accommodate someone who fails to indicate that they have a disability. You have a right to expect work to be completed. You can suggest they explore their options with the Employee Assistance Program when behaviors and performance decline or change. As always, focus on the work and expectations.
If an employee comes to you stating that they have a mental illness and need an accommodation, get Human Resources involved. The ADA covers those who are qualified: if they can’t do the job, they do not meet the standard. Assuming the employee is covered by the ADA, explore options to accommodate the employee.
Accommodations on average have been found to cost about $500, which is substantially less than replacing a talented employee. Let the employee guide you on their needs. You can seek outside assistance as well. Many employees returning to the workplace have job coaches who are mental health professionals who may offer valuable assistance and insight.
Let’s examine some problems and solutions that may be helpful:
- Difficulty concentrating: Look at projects in pieces—just break them down without compromising the project, assign work tasks one at a time, and/or allow short but frequent breaks.
- Difficulty blocking out office sounds and distractions: Have the employee use headphones, move them from the hub of noise and activity and/or printers/copier/fax machines.
- Difficulty interacting with co-workers: Assign a work buddy or mentor to the employee to show them the “ropes” of the office.
- Difficulty adapting to change: Prepare the employee for the change, explain new work rules or programs, make sure the employee is introduced to the supervisors and colleagues.
If your employee has a job coach, utilize the advantage of this resource. Denise Stuart, a mental health professional, stated that she has "witnessed, the positive impact that a reasonable accommodation can make; even one as simple as having an employee start their work day 30 minutes later due to the side effects of their medications."
The Job Accommodation Network is a resource for employers. Many states (including Nebraska) have a variety of resources available, you only need to look to the Department of Health and Human Services. Assisting those with mental illness does offer us the opportunity to advance our businesses, but it also helps those seeking to reintegrate into jobs and employment. We should not lose sight of the impact of mental illness. Together we begin to dissect the barriers. Lets look at Mental Illness Awareness month as an opportunity to learn, together!
Have you or your workplace been affected by mental illness? Comment below.