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Dealing with Mental Illness in the Workplace

How mental illness affects co-workers and employers
Dealing with Mental Illness in the Workplace
Published on October 11, 2010 : 17 comments

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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.

Co-Workers Perspective

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.

Employer Perspective

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.

KNicoliniKathleen A. Nicolini, SPHR, MBA President, Favor Human Resources Consulting


Anonymous (not verified) says:

October 12, 2010 : 13 years 40 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

As someone with diagnosed depression, who finally decided to get professional help a month ago, I really appreciate this article. Fortunately, I have a supportive employer and a few supportive co-workers who I’ve confided in. When you’re already depressed, the added stress of wondering how much it’s going to affect your work and work place can be enough to push you over the edge.
Thank you to bringing light to this sensitive subject!

Anonymous (not verified) says:

October 13, 2010 : 13 years 40 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

We all need to be in this together and understand that mental illness is not “someone else’s” problem - it effects us all.

ServeOmaha says:

October 15, 2010 : 13 years 40 weeks ago

ServeOmaha's picture

This is a great article. Thanks for shedding light on what employees and employers can do to make life at work better for all.

S.Lee (not verified) says:

October 22, 2010 : 13 years 39 weeks ago

S.Lee's picture

I am not the employee with the mental illness, but i’ve been working directly with a coworker who, i suspect, is suffering from a mental illness. The situation is having an immense impact on my productivity as well as my peace in the workplace…the effects are now spilling over into my personal life. It is very frustrating…

KNicolini says:

October 22, 2010 : 13 years 39 weeks ago

KNicolini's picture

Thank you for your input. It is helpful to have input from the perspective of someone experiencing mental illness to someone who is impacted by a co-worker.

It’s good to hear Anonymous that you have an employer and a few trusted co-workers that are supporting your recovery process. For many individuals engaging in their recovery, employment may be one component of the total plan for health. I appreciate your willingness to share.

Working with a co-worker who is adversely impacting you not only at work but personally the situation may have elevated to the level of necessitating you speaking with the supervisor, manager or human resources team members. It is important to keep them aware of what is occurring. Sometimes they truly don’t know there is a problem; other times they suspect but like others are hesitant to confront the challenge facing the workplace. If it is affecting you at home too I would encourage you to seek out some aid from your Employee Assistance Program or a trusted advisor. I see that it’s important to care for yourself, and not let someone’ else health concerns adversely affect you. Many times easier said than done, but explore the options that may be there for you. Good luck.

Thank you Tom and Anonymous (dated October 13, 2010). Awareness is increasing but we are a long way even with awareness to understanding. It is definitely our problem when we look at the financial impact on the workplace not to mention our health care system. We are demanding more but wanting to spend less. Community based rehabiliation uses scarce resources prudently and are invaluable in championing the cause of public awareness. Thank you all for your feedback. I hope you continue to read Your Workplace and offer input.

Pat Frattington (not verified) says:

October 24, 2010 : 13 years 39 weeks ago

Pat Frattington's picture

This article really makes me think about how mental illness can affect people at work. Mental illness acceptance is really coming around now that congress has passed since the House of Representatives approved a bill that eliminates the use of the words “retarded” and “retardation” in health, education and labor laws. Good for you kathy…

Anonymous (not verified) says:

October 27, 2010 : 13 years 38 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

As someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, I am not having success with my job being accomodating. The HR department is being very wishy washy with any responses to my returning to work. They gave me “options” which really were not options I have the choice to choose from. They will make the choice for me and I currently trust NO ONE on my team. I have spilled my guts to HR as to the piles of work they keep giving me, the lack of proper leadership and it is only backfiring on me for being honest. I will go back to work with a target on my back if they choose a certain position for me and I am so torn and lost as to what I am suppose to do. I feel they are setting me up to fail with the options they are giving me.
After 10 yrs of service, I know see that they now view me as damaged good and I don’t want to give them the satifaction of giving in and quitting as job was the main stressor to my breakdown. Anyone have any helpful feedback?

Anonymous (not verified) says:

February 8, 2011 : 13 years 23 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

I am a co-worker of someone who exhibits strange behavior at work. I am tasked with monitoring workloads and requesting work plans when employees fall behind. I am asking for a work plan from this person once a week. I receive responses to my requests from this person that lead me to wonder if this person is someone who is resistent to work in general and uses manipulation tactics or has something more serious going on like mental illness. This persons behavior and responses are taxing to me. This person vascillates between excuses and claims of confusion about what is expected of her. The challenge of finding ways to keep her work flowing falls to me. I have had to find others to take this persons workload on or do her work at night on my own time to keep our department compliant. Other co-workers are privately expressing their frustration with doing her work on a regular basis. This is bothering me enough now that I went looking for a site like this for info. Honestly, I could care less if this person is mentally ill, she needs to do her job and stop avoiding work. My boss has intimated that she knows the issues and that things are going on higher up in the company that she cannot divulge. I am fairly certain that my employer would cringe at the suggestion that this persons behavior be labeled a disability.

KNicolini says:

February 9, 2011 : 13 years 23 weeks ago

KNicolini's picture

Its a difficult situation when someone is not completing work and it falls upon others to complete. If you and your supervisor are in agreement you may seek guidance from your HR team. Employees (even if they have a disability that rises to protection under the ADA) are required to perform the essential functions of their job.

I have managed situations by ensuring the employees knows their expectations (I used annual performance reviews or key responsibilities/expectations)to define work objectives that the employee signed off on as well-confirming they are aware and understand the expectations and due dates. I provided input and feedback when goals were not achieved (and when they were successful), and dealt with it as a performance management issue. The work does need to be completed.

Unforunately in HR there not absolutes -each case has to be addressed independently in ADA cases. Many factors come into play in addressing the situation you outlined. I encourage you to seek guidance from your supervisor and HR team to address work completion challenges, and if there is something occuring up above in the chain of command trusting your supervisor will be helpful. Keeping your supervisor informed of the work completion challenges and how you are distributing to avoid harming the department and organization is generally welcome and it reinforces the need to address the situation. I would enourage you keep notes without drawing conclusions on whether or not the person has an illness -report the facts…on this date, this assignment was given, and was not completed on this date (also on this date co-worker approached me about having to complete her regular duties and work that Employee has not completed). If your organization has an EAP program I encourage you to seek assistance from them as well. They can be a resource to supervisors.

Anonymous (not verified) says:

February 11, 2011 : 13 years 23 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

Hi Kathleen, Thanks for the response. I feel better today than I did the other evening when I first posted. I work for a global company and am certain they must have an EAP type program. I took over my tracking tasks from a prior track lead that left her position due to the stress, much of which is caused by this woman and one other who are a constant headache. This lead continually brought her complaints to our sup, but she was not the type to meticulously track things in order to substantiate her complaints. I feel my boss has needed hard evidence for a while and due to some company contract changes I’ve begun to give her this much needed information weekly while tracking our department workload. Its performance review time of year, I believe this employee may be in for a rude awakening very soon.

Anonymous (not verified) says:

February 5, 2013 : 11 years 24 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

I was looking to find your resources for your numbers :( can you send them ?

Anonymous (not verified) says:

June 23, 2013 : 11 years 4 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

We have an employee who is claiming diability for depression, but he is in school full time and proclaims to being under stress for caring for his 21 yr old ‘healthy’ brother. What’s more surprising is that his diability was actually approved. Seriously? What is our world coming to when individuals can get disability to avoid being punctual and working to their full capacity? What an insult to people who are truly disabled.

Anonymous (not verified) says:

July 24, 2013 : 10 years 52 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

I have a mental disorder that I don’t disclose as I try very hard to be treated like everyone else. However, the last place I worked at, I had to deal with two co-workers who had worse. One was a compulsive liar, the other was regressing and acting out. However, I was the one that was getting blamed for bad behavior all the time while the other two got a pass. So on the day I had no choice but to tell my supervisors, I asked why they never called those two out. They accused me of ‘judging’ them. I’m sorry, but being concerned about someone’s mental well being is different than judging them. In fact, it wasn’t just the supervisors making their behavior worse, it was the co-workers who pretended to be their friends and laughed behind their backs. Unfortunately, I got fired under false accusations from a bossy customer a few months after this happened and I’ve been spending the last two years looking for work. Me, the one that was trying to not let their disorder get in the way of their performance.

I’m trying to say that not addressing these things can only make the mental health of these two individuals worse. And it’s incredibly sad that they will do that in order to pay them lower wages. It needs to stop.

Carol (not verified) says:

January 30, 2014 : 10 years 24 weeks ago

Carol's picture

I am a 53-year-old woman who has suffered from depression my entire, adult life. Depression IS a real disease! I was terminated after a flawless work record with the State of Michigan due to take taking an FMLA stress/depression due to uncrupulous actions at the workplace. While I was doing MY job, others were having sex on company time, all of whom are still employed, some of whom were promoted. I have been denied unemployment benefits?? Where is the justice? Can anyone recommend advice or the name of a hungry attorney? I live in Michigan…it gives me strength to know I’m not alone☺️

Anonymous (not verified) says:

May 6, 2014 : 10 years 11 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

My personal story is too long, detailed, and ugly to explain here but I am thankful to have been told of which is set up for the protection of employees, even in “at will” employment states, from the cruelties of people at the top who are high on ego and short on knowledge that those ‘below’ them do have human rights.

Anonymous (not verified) says:

June 4, 2014 : 10 years 7 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

I have worked for 3 years with someone that must be mentally ill. There are 2 bosses. The female boss felt this employee purposesly gave her food that made the boss violently ill. The employee told the female boss, “Here’s your arsenic” when she gave her the food. The female boss tried to get the male boss to let the employee go, and he would not. With me, the woman told me she didn’t like bottled water (though she drinks it daily) as she doesn’t like the “fishy” stuff in it. Later that same day after drinking a bottle of water about half way down, I had been up from my desk, came back and took a drink. I experienced strong fish oil taste - when I looked at the bottle, there were fish eggs in it as well as fish oil. I showed the two bosses, and the female boss felt sure the employee had put the fish eggs in the bottle. The employee also lies alot and “brow beats” the older, male boss. Maybe an even more serious problem is that the older, male boss enables her. His partner, me, and good clients have left because of her and he won’t do anything. I think he must’ve had an affair with this lady, or something. I finally got a new job and will be leaving in a couple of days - however, I feel like I have PTSD. Is there something I can do that will make the boss take responsibility for the anxiety, fear and unhappiness I’ve experienced due to the mentally ill/dangerous employee and the enabling boss? Please help.

Anonymous (not verified) says:

June 4, 2014 : 10 years 7 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

Call Hotline 202-307-0663, (or 800-514-0301 I’m not certain why I have this number noted), also 800-669-4000 is EOE I think, but am not certain. When you reach the ADA automated system you will need to follow directions to press, 1, 2, etc, and may be asked to enter certain info on you keypad. Do key in your phone number when requested because they will call you back. Tell your story at this hotline, and they will inform you if you have grounds for a case, and if so who to call next.

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