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Dealing with Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Let me address the proverbial elephant in the room that is mental health, resilience and mindfulness and the way in which mental health is handled or not handled by employees and employers. The United States experiences more workplace violence and on the extreme end, workplace shootings, than any other comparable nation historically and globally. 

Why is this? What makes the work environment in the United States conducive to violence?  What are the extenuating circumstances that precipitate an environment where individuals feel mass shooting is the best solution for their problems? Below is a sobering infographic from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) that notes of all the workplace shootings in 2010, 17 percent of those took place in a governmental institution. Though we are now eight years down the road, the breakdown by industry of shootings has not shifted that much from 2010, based upon other BLS reporting.

The point of this post isn’t to talk about workplace shootings and violence but rather to discuss mental health in the workplace and to explore what measures we can take both as employees and employers to avoid these extreme incidents, which are often the concluding chapter in a battle with mental illness.

Let’s start with the fact that in many cases employees will lie about the reason they give for taking time off if it is related to mental reasons rather than physical ones. Conversely, managers are more likely to accept and approve physical illness as a reason to miss work than a mental one. Research by the UK-based mental health research charity Time-To-Change indicates, “95 percent of employees suffering from stress lied about the reason for their absence.” This statistic holds true in the US as well.

The result of this finding would indicate that employers are unaware of how the workplace environment is affecting individual employee’s mental health and are therefore unable to make reasonable adjustments that could better accommodate employees suffering from a mental health issue to successfully participate at work while managing their mental health issues.

Based on research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the Health and Human Services Department, and other mental health institutions, here is some practical advice for employees and employers.

Employees

We are all human and as humans we do not like to express things that may paint us as weak, different or less than. Honestly, no one likes to admit they are fallible in any way, however, if you are grappling with a mental health issue that significantly impacts your ability to perform your job, severely compromises your ability to cope with things that are categorized as typical life responsibilities (i.e. workplace interactions and communication, personal hygiene, managing stress, juggling work and home life, etc.) you should disclose this to your employer. If your employer doesn’t know what is going on with you, they will not be able to support you. It is important to note that in most cases you are only obligated to disclose your health status if it could pose a safety issue or prevents you from being able to fulfill the requirements of your job as described above.

Disclosure can be difficult, so prior to the conversation with your supervisor, practice. Go to a trusted friend or family member and debrief what you want to discuss. Once you disclose your status to your supervisor(s), be clear in communicating exactly what you need (i.e. I need to take Thursday mornings at 10:00 am off for the next six weeks to meet with my specialist). The more specificity you provide, the easier it will be for your employer to support you and to advise you of other resources available.

Employers

Pay attention to your employees, especially if you observe marked changes in behavior – mood, lateness, disheveled appearance, reduced performance quality and ask if everything is okay. Many times, supervisors are reluctant to ask questions fearing they are overstepping boundaries. As a manager, I understand there exists a fine line between concern and intrusion, but in truth, there is nothing wrong with checking with an employee.

Demonstrate you care and get involved early. By stepping in early you may prevent the behavior change(s) from negatively impacting the office environment and drawing further attention to specific employees.

De-stigmatize mental health issues by making it familiar. Bring it up at staff meetings, include it in employee newsletters, talk about it with occupational health and safety teams. Offer resources to employees, refer them to employee assistance programs, or a trained HR professional.

If an employee has the courage to disclose an illness, listen and ask, “What do you need?” Be mindful that disclosure is a huge and often very difficult step for a person to take. Assure employees that they are a valued member of the team and that you will support them on the next steps.

Mental health is only a taboo subject because we (society) make it that way. Familiarity with something breeds tolerance and understanding. It is the responsibility of both employees and employers to create an environment where discussing mental health, resilience and mindfulness is encouraged and supported and where awareness of the resources and support systems available is common knowledge to everyone.

Lia Miller is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Fredy Diaz

Great article! Appreciate you bringing this subject out in the open. Like you said, acceptance starts with familiarity. Taking a mental health day should be as socially acceptable as taking a sick day because of the flu.

Profile Photo Lia Miller

Thank you Fredy. Yes I truly believe the way to “normalize” anything is to become familiar with it. I completely agree with your statement that a mental health day should be as acceptable as taking a sick day for any reason. Hopefully we’re moving down the road in that direction even if it is only poco a poco o paso a paso.