What to Do When You Think an Employee May Need Mental Health Help

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In the best of conditions, supervising staff can be complicated and stressful. When it appears that an employee may have a mental health problem, many supervisors are unsure what actions are appropriate and in the best interest of the individual and the organization. Our goal is to help supervisors assist employees in getting services so they can be healthy and return to a productive work life. The following strategies will help ensure positive and constructive outcomes.

Establish a Mentally Healthy Working Environment

  • Educate: Employees and managers need to learn about mental illnesses, stress, wellness, health and mental health benefits, and accessing services. The EAP is a great resource.
  • Watch language: Encourage staff at all levels to use people-first language (e.g., a person with schizophrenia, vs. a schizophrenic).
  • Encourage dialogue: Create a safe environment in which staff members can talk about stress, workloads, family commitments and other issues. Send the message that mental illnesses are real and treatable. Many people with mental illness achieve significant improvement and continue to lead productive lives.

Learn the Signs of a Mental Health Problem

Here are some behaviors that may be signs of a mental health problem:

  • Working slowly
  • Missing deadlines
  • Calling in sick frequently
  • Increasing absenteeism
  • Expressing irritability and anger
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Appearing numb or emotionless
  • Withdrawing from work activity
  • Overworking
  • Forgetting directives, procedures and requests
  • Having difficulty with work transitions or changes in routines

These symptoms could also result when an employee has a family member suffering from a mental health problem or other serious health issue. It can disrupt the employee’s working hours, lead to absences, affect concentration and decrease morale as much as it would if the employee had the mental health problem.

Do Not Diagnose

As a supervisor, you cannot and should not diagnose an employee. However, you can discuss changes in work performance and listen to the employee’s response and concerns. If there are personal issues, suggest that the employee seek consultation from the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

If you intervene, control your emotions. You may be nervous about this type of intervention. This is normal, so plan ahead. Consult with the EAP when preparing to talk with an employee.

Be prepared for varied responses. Let the staffer express his or her feelings, but maintain control—and keep focused on work performance. Be constructive; point out weaknesses, but emphasize what can be done to improve or rectify the situation. Make sure you have adequate time and privacy and avoid interruptions.

Make Reasonable Accommodations: You may need to make reasonable accommodations that will help them perform their jobs. Be prepared to accommodate needs of staff that have standing appointments for mental health treatment. Some employees may need time off for treatment and supervisors need to ensure a healthy transition back to work. Staff should also be encouraged to ask for support they need and supervisors should provide an environment where people feel comfortable. Contact your organization’s human resources to find out your policies on FMLA, ADA and leave.

Making reasonable accommodations is not only good for your organization and staff involved, it’s also required by law. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. Modifying work schedules for appointments is a common accommodation.

Be Prepared to Handle Emergencies: Deal with problems quickly and efficiently especially if there are concerns that the environment is becoming hostile. Listen to all sides and make decisions based on facts. Make sure employees feel they are listened to. Document accurately how you treat people fairly and consistently.

Severe mental illnesses may be life-threatening to the employee. If a person makes comments such as, “I wish I were dead,” or “Life’s not worth living anymore,” take these seriously. Dial 911, take the employee to the emergency room, or contact your EAP immediately to seek advice about how to handle the situation.