Dealing with Mental Health Issues in the Workplace | DCR Workforce Blog

Dealing with Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Mental Health“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

The deliberate crashing of a Germanwings flight in the Alps, by its co-pilot, has brought the importance of mental health to the attention of every supervisor in the world. Issues with mental health affect performance and decision-making. Even the treatment carries its own complications, with medications affecting a person’s energy levels, personality and wellness.

Historically, a mental health issue was a cause for embarrassment. . My friend, a psychiatrist, tells me of how the stigma attached to mental health issues is best typified by the lament of his patient’s mother – as she wished her child’s diagnosis was cancer instead of schizophrenia, knowing the latter may be managed/cured, while the former does not always offer a positive prognosis and could be life-threatening. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 41 million Americans face mental health issues every year. With effective treatment many of them recover or are able to control their symptoms and lead a “normal” life. However, few seek treatment and the cost of untreated or improperly managed mental illness is heavy, exceeding $100 billion in the US alone.

What do employers do, when one of their workers displays signs of mental health issues?

  1. Pile more work on the person, point to performance issues and quietly let the person go; even though the Americans with Disabilities Act propounds the need to accommodate and treat mentally ill workers.?


  1. Support them through the lean times, refer them to the right support groups, go easy on their work assignments and pull them back – out of the darkness?

The first would be a violation of Federal law, and the second raises more questions: what can workplaces do to help in the detection and treatment of mental illness? How can they support employees through their treatment and recovery? Also, how can they control all negative assumptions about such people as ‘odd’ or ‘crazy’ or control the strong and only wish to see them off the premises?

In reality, a straightforward choice is rarely ever made. An experience from earlier in my career exemplifies a situation that plays out in the workplace every day. An individual was transferred into my organization. He was generally quiet, but at a team meeting he became quite boisterous, shouting down everyone else and making comments that were offensive to some group members. I assumed that he was having a bad day, and took him aside during a break to discuss his behavior. For the remainder of the meeting, he sat silently. A week later, he barged into my office, disrupting a meeting to rant about the stupidity of his co-workers. He also made statements indicating that he felt so stressed that he often thought about harming himself. Fortunately, recognizing at this point that I am not qualified to evaluate the cause of this erratic behavior, I was wise enough to engage the assistance of Human Resources. What followed was a long balancing act in which his need for assistance – and privacy – were at odds with the team’s need to feel safe and productive.

Value of a Support System:

A person with mental health issues may not be aware of a need to seek medical help – which makes intervention at the workplace imperative.

Every employer should have a program in place to educate their managers to recognize and deal with potential mental health issues. They should make confidential Employee Assistance Programs available. Companies like DuPont have taken a proactive approach by working with through Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. Others who want to be involved can do so, using resources like Mental Health First Aid class developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Addressing Potential Mental Health Issues:

  • Studies have demonstrated the following steps to be most effective in successfully dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. Educate everyone about the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders. This could help someone to self-diagnose and seek support. Clear the misconception that mental illness is not treatable – 65%-80% are completely cured.
  • Establish protocols for those in supervisory positions to follow. Managers are qualified to recognize and address performance issues, not diagnose medical conditions. When issues surface that may be indicative of a medical condition, seek the participation and guidance of trained Human Resources personnel. Establish a plan for handling an issue, and document every step.
  • When meeting with the employee, create a low-stress environment in which the performance issue at hand is at the heart of the discussion. Outline corrective actions to be taken, and timelines that must be met. Provide the worker with a copy of the company’s performance management process.
  • In discussions with the employee, ensure that the worker is aware of available resources for assistance, and accommodations that can be made if needed. However, do not speculate on the cause of the performance issue.
  • When dealing with agency-supplied contractors, it is the responsibility of the staffing agency, who is the worker’s employer, to address any issues. When selecting suppliers, ask them to verify the availability of Employee Assistance Programs for their workers.
  • Follow up. Workers are not required to tell you if they have used EAP services or sought any other assistance. However, they may request reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Be sure that your company has a process in place for evaluating and responding to accommodation requests. If however, if performance does not improve as specified in the corrective action plan and no reasonable accommodation is requested, be prepared to discipline or terminate the employee.

Employers who provided mental health care and management support have enjoyed reduced absenteeism and increased productivity, bringing tangible benefits in the form of greater financial performance. So, employers who provide such support need not look upon it as a social service. The next time you find someone behaving oddly or aggressively, stop to think if you could help in any way. They need it because they are facing something – a debilitating illness that often comes with intolerance and misunderstanding.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.