At some point in your career as an HR professional, you may encounter an employee who begins to act out of normal character. You may notice a normally productive employee suddenly start to have trouble at work. Or you might notice an increase in tardiness or absenteeism from an employee who otherwise has had no issues with missing work. More times than not, especially if you are the sole HR person on staff, you will have an employee confide in you that he or she is going through something personal.
When these sorts of episodes happen, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle things from an HR standpoint. It’s perfectly acceptable to question whether or not this employee is experiencing a mental health problem. Then it’s time to take appropriate action so that this doesn’t negatively affect other employees. Here’s how to handle this with respect for all involved.
First, it’s important to recognize that many people experience bouts of mental illness at some point in life. A 2008 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health indicated that as much as 8% of the US adult population has been diagnosed with some form of serious mental illness. This may be situational, such as depression following a loss, or may be a life-long, yet treatable disorder.
Here are some possible warning signs of mental illness:
- Confused thinking or inability to problem solve
- Long-lasting sadness or irritability on the job
- Extreme highs and lows in mood (crying spells, over-excitedness)
- Excessive fear, worry, or anxiety (stress at work too much to handle)
- Social withdrawal (no longer talking with co-workers)
- Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits (not taking lunch breaks)
- Strong feelings of anger (getting into arguments with co-workers or clients)
- Delusions or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there)
- Increasing inability to cope with daily problems and activities (lack of follow-through with tasks)
- Thoughts of suicide (speaking about death or dying with co-workers)
- Denial of obvious problems (refusal to correct negative work habits or addictions)
- Many unexplained physical problems (excessive absenteeism due to illness, complaining of pains)
- Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol (signs of drug or alcohol use, missing work a lot)
(Adapted from Web MD http://www.webmd.com/depression/mental-health-warning-signs)
Regardless of why there is a possible mental illness in an employee, it’s critical to treat all employees with fairness and compassion. It’s never ok to favor or discriminate against someone who may have a mental illness. However, as the HR person it’s your job to keep an eye out for any job-related behaviors that may be affecting workplace productivity or causing a breakdown of work teams. If you spot these things, take action by speaking directly with the employee’s immediate supervisor to get to the root of the issue before it gets out of hand.
Once you have ascertained that an employee may be suffering from a mental illness, have a private meeting with the employee and their supervisor. Ask the employee if he or she is having trouble at work for any reason. Let the employee share what is going on and convey understanding for them. It’s important that the employee does not feel singled out or be made to worry about confidentiality or respect on the job. Give the employee a chance to talk, and then offer positive feedback and suggestions.
Encourage any employee who is having problems at work to take advantage of your company EAP program. This will often alleviate tension at work, and give the employee an opportunity to vent. EAP representatives are trained to recognize signs of possible mental illness and addiction, to offer options for treatment and support. Let the professionals do their job and don’t try to play psychiatrist.
From an employee productivity standpoint, work with supervisors to reduce the stress on the affected employee by offering alternative work duties and team support. Make the employee accountable for meeting certain work standards, but do not add more duties to this employee. Schedule regular meetings with the supervisor on the employee’s status to judge if the employee’s productivity is being met or is improving. Encourage the employee by instituting corporate morale boosting activities and incentives for the entire team.
Most of all, remember that HR professionals must keep an open door to all employees regardless of what they may be experiencing. Be compassionate, understanding, and provide confidential resources for those who may need a little extra help to overcome the symptoms of mental illness. All employees deserve dignity, regardless of their mental status, so put yourself in their shoes.
Worried about an employee who may have a mental illness? Find the support and resources you need at TempStaff today!