Throughout the month of May we’ve observed Mental Health Awareness Month, a concept that began in 1949. And, while horrific mass shootings, often attributed to failings in mental health, capture our attention through all forms of media, shortcomings of mental mental health are displayed in many ways that often miss the attention and support they need.
Like physical health, mental health has a huge hold on our behaviors and abilities, something that obviously is critical to your employees’ productivity on your behalf. Having a capable Human Resources professional on your team can be incredibly important to recognizing and responding to the signs that something is not right with an employee. Just as with physical illness, untreated mental illness can lead to a worsening situation. Some signs to recognize include:
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Expressing feelings of deep sadness
- Unexpected problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable ‘highs’
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily stresses
These symptoms and more can be found at NAMI.org (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
Now, we don’t mean to say that mental health is encouraged by ‘niceness’, lack of challenges or the prevention of all conflict. Learning and breakthroughs often happen by asking unconventional questions and accepting challenges to improve. Yet, it’s often the case that the more psychologically safe your team feels at work, the more likely they are to challenge the norm and find new solutions and opportunities for your business.
So, how do you respond if you believe an employee is at risk with respect to their mental health? This can be a challenge; while no one will be upset if you ask ‘do you feel ok?’ about their physical state, asking the same about one’s mental health had been shaded in stigma. Our general culture has not normalized conversation around mental health. And that works both ways: if an employee comes to you expressing concerns for their mental health, you must realize the difficulty – their own situation, attitudes expressed on the job, societal pressures – s/he had in disclosing it.
Your initial response should be rooted in these contexts:
- Awareness of the difficulty your employee may have coming to you at all
- Gratitude that they are sharing this with you, yet low key enough, so that the ensuing conversation isn’t about you and your reaction.
- As you would in any situation when an employee comes to you with a difficult subject, listen openly and without judgment. Offer to support them in ways that are reasonable that, in fact, might take time for you to figure out; don’t over promise.
- Most importantly, be clear that confidentiality will be honored yet, if you do have a human resources pro on your team, they may need to be involved.
If, rather than approach you, your employee is exhibiting behavior that may point to a form of mental illness, it’s important to be aware of your local state’s laws regarding your ability to ask them about it. Generally, impaired mental health is considered a disability and, unless it impairs an employee’s ability to do their job, they cannot be fired simply because the impairment exists. And, because mental health changes can be temporary due to personal or professional stressors, you certainly don’t want to make a decision about an employee’s viability in a moment whose complexion will change.
As you can imagine, there are a great many resources, both legal and workplace cultural, that we can apply, depending on the unique situation you confront. And, as always, we urge you to reach out to us to minimize any damage, either to your valued employee or to your business.