Mental Illness at Work: Tips for Employers & Employees

When Someone at Work Has a Mood DisorderIt is hard to ignore a co-worker whose eyes fill with tears during a meeting for no apparent reason.  A colleague may angrily explode without provocation.  A responsible colleague who was a model of timeliness arrives increasingly late to work or struggles to meet deadlines.

A mood disorder can alter an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional state and, if left untreated, may interfere with one’s ability to function.  Mood disorders include depression, seasonal affect disorder (SAD), and bipolar disorder.

It is often excruciatingly difficult for someone wrestling with mental illness to admit when they are struggling – to themselves or to anyone else.  Author, Jane Austen, once wrote, “Sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself because I could find no language to describe them.”  When an employee at work struggles with a mood disorder, it can create stress within the work environment.

How do you recognize when someone at work is wrestling with a mood disorder? 

One in five U.S. adults struggle with some form of mental illness every year [National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2015].  Mental illness contributes to the leading cause of workplace absenteeism [World Health Organization (WHO), 2017].

People struggle with memory, concentration, organization, and making decisions for a variety of reasons.  It is not uncommon to experience a lack energy and or a desire to withdraw from others from time to time.  However, someone who may have a mood disorder exhibits symptoms that last for an extended period of time.

What can employees do when someone at work has a mood disorder?

WHO (2017) reports, “A person may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organizational practices.”  To complicate matters, bullying and harassment at work add greater psychological and physical stress to individuals struggling with a mood disorder.  Challenges that arise when someone at work has a mood disorder often leads to reduced productivity and increased staff turnover.

Listed below are ways employees can offer support to someone struggling with a mood disorder at work:

  1. Respect their privacy and avoid discussing their diagnosis (or suspected diagnosis) with others in the workplace.  Internal gossip is not good for anyone.  Gossip destroys trust and damages relationships.  
  2. Learn to recognize symptoms of mood disorders.  The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), NAMI, and many local mental health organizations offer free resources.
  3. Report concerns about an individual you suspect has a clinical mood disorder to your employer. Be specific.  Describe behaviors you’ve seen and heard from the individual (not what you suspect), particularly if concerns are work-related issues or if the individual is at risk of injuring themselves or others.
  4. Strategize a plan of action with specific tasks when working together on team projects.   
  5. Set appropriate boundaries.  Never make excuses for someone who demonstrates abusive behavior.  A mood disorder may be at the root of inappropriate behavior, but it is never an excuse.

 

What can employers do when someone at work has a mood disorder?

An employee with a mood disorder may need workplace accommodations to do their jobs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA requires employers to “provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities” unless doing so would present undue hardship.  Adequate accommodations (i.e.: permission to listen to music, adjustments within the work space, time off for appointments, etc.) create a least restrictive environment and should not interfere with other employees or the work environment.

These suggestions offer ways employers can offer support to someone struggling with a mood disorder at work:

  1. Contact HR or department within your organization to share concerns about someone with a mood disorder and to create a conversation plan.
  2. Discuss your concerns with an individual you suspect has a mood disorder.  Include them in the discussion to create a plan of support.
  3. Create a plan to meet goals to ensure the individual with a mood disorder experiences success.
  4. Offer support and resources to members within your organization.  Many local and national mental health organizations [including many local mental health organizations including the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and NAMI] offer free resources.
  5. Provide behavioral health training and professional development for all employees.  Everyone can benefit from training that enhances the quality of life.  Professional development topics can include communication and conflict resolution skills, stress management, work/life balance, teamwork, and organization/productivity. 
  6. Set appropriate boundaries. Never give permission or make excuses for someone who demonstrates abusive behavior.  A mood disorder may be at the root of inappropriate behavior, but it is never an excuse.

Use these suggestion to create workplace boundaries that protect everyone:

  1. Establish workplace norms that reflect mutual respect and hold all employees accountable for their behaviors.
  2. Do not tolerate bullying or inappropriate behaviors in the workplace.  Establish work-related policies, procedures, and boundaries that protect all employees.
  3. Provide communication and conflict resolution skill training for all staff members.
  4. Focus on finding solutions (not problems).
  5. Create a system of documentation and means through which employees may report bullying or behaviors that raise concerns.
  6. Identify a system of reporting information to the appropriate parties.

What do you do when someone with a mood disorder expresses a desire to share confidential information?

You may choose to listen if a fellow employee with a mood disorder chooses to confide in you, but it is important to establish appropriate boundaries.  Set time limits.  Allow discussion before or after work or during breaks.  Do not take sides or become overly-involved in the individual’s personal life.   Remember you are an employee – not a therapist.

Mental illness need not prevent employees from quality performance or contributions to a positive work environment.  When employers and employees work together to provide support for an employee with a mood disorder, it is not uncommon for relationships within organizations to strengthen, trust deepens, and their commitment to teamwork increases over time.  Joint efforts to support employees may be especially helpful to those who are struggling and have not yet found the courage to ask for help.

When there are collaborative efforts at work to support one another, everyone wins.

What can you do to support colleagues and contribute to a positive work environment? 

 

Do you feel alone and isolated?  Build Your Support System and surround yourself with a positive network.

Replace Old Tapes with New Messages if you are struggling with negative self-talk.

A mood disorder may lie beneath the behavior of a bully, but it is never an excuse. These suggestions explain How to Stand Up to Bullies.

Open channels of discussion with a child or teen with these tips from Teach Youth How to Communicate and Resolve Conflict.

 

Once crippled with depression and agoraphobia (a debilitating anxiety disorder), Julie Connor, Ed.D. empowers businesses, schools, churches, and nonprofit organizations with training and resources to recognize and successfully interact with employees and colleagues with mood disorders.  Julie specializes in communication, conflict resolution, and empowers others with skills and tools to transform challenges into opportunities.  Dr. Connor is the author of an award-winning personal goal-setting book, Dreams to Action Trailblazer’s Guide.