Helping an Employee or Coworker with a Mood or Mental Disorder

School Nutrition’s March 2014 issue explores mental health and mental illness with the aim of starting a conversation about these conditions that often go undiscussed. In “Love and ‘Madness,’” author Patricia Fitzgerald discusses ways to recognize and help a loved one with a mental illness. But how do you assist an employee who you supervise or a colleague who works alongside you, if you observe their struggles? It can be a particular challenge, considering the context of your professional relationship. Some suggestions follow for both managers and coworkers.

Managing Effectively
When a previously stellar employee begins acting withdrawn, calling in sick frequently and dropping the ball on her work, as a manager, you know that you need to address the situation. But if you have reason to suspect a mental health problem—such as depression, anxiety or other condition—is the root cause, you must handle it delicately.

Set up a meeting with the employee to discuss your concerns, but don’t go into the discussion empty-handed. Do plenty of prep work, including finding out if your school district, agency or company has any approved resources to make available to your staffer to aid them in getting outside help. Also, make time to work with human resources staff so that you can familiarize yourself with appropriate accommodation policies and processes.

Don’t have a human resources expert to turn to? Consider visiting the Job Accommodation Network at www.askjan.org. You also can research the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, so you don’t inadvertently expose the school or organization to a lawsuit. Keep in mind that the ADA prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities, and that includes mental health disabilities. If your employee is a member of a union or protected by a negotiated agreement, there may be other requirements or restrictions to investigate before you meet with the employee.

When you do meet with the employee, be prepared for a reluctant, defensive or even hostile response. Although you know that you’re open and willing to help, the stigma surrounding mental illness means an employee might be disinclined to share details of such struggles with a supervisor. In the meeting, you should:

  • Frame your concern as a workplace issue, not a problem with the individual. Note your concerns and your desire to provide assistance not punishment.
  • Assure the employee that your discussions together will be confidential.
  • Offer potential accommodations, if necessary and as you can. For example, if depression is causing the employee to experience insomnia and poor sleep patterns, resulting in consistently late arrivals, are there ways to offer a more flexible work schedule? Of course you can’t change designated meal periods, but maybe your staffer stops serving breakfast and is available for supper service instead. Or maybe there are menu items that can be prepped and refrigerated a day in advance and the practice of making them the same day has been simply a matter of habit and preference. Be open to reasonable suggestions and ideas; but you probably should discuss these with your own supervisor in advance of offering them as strategies to the employee.
  • Provide information on a resources accessible through a formal Employee Assistance Program, if available, as well as appropriate community services.
  • Set a follow-up meeting and make sure the individual knows about your open-door policy.

Although you are concerned, there are certain things you should not do when meeting with your employee:

  • Don’t attempt to diagnose the employee’s problem. You’re not a medical professional.
  • Avoid the temptation to ask for more specifics about the employee’s personal life. Keep the discussion focused on workplace behaviors and solutions as much as possible.
  • Don’t suggest that things “aren’t so bad,” or offer a pep talk in an effort to “cheer them up.”
  • Avoid accusatory or inappropriate language, such as suggesting the employee “no longer cares,” is “lazy” or is “crazy.”

If, at any point, you grow concerned that the employee poses an imminent danger to herself or others, immediately take further action by calling 911 or a 24-hour crisis line and alerting your own supervisor to the issue.

Supporting a Coworker
It’s difficult to work with someone who, in your opinion, has been irritable or moody, is frequently late or absent or is neglecting to finish their tasks properly—especially if this seems to be out of character! Remember, though, that it’s not your place to speculate on your colleague’s mental status or dabble in personal (and personnel) issues. While it’s perfectly normal to be frustrated when you feel like you’re picking up the slack for a coworker, it’s also essential to practice compassion, whether or not you understand or know the underlying problem.

As a coworker, you might be the first to notice a change in a colleague’s demeanor or work habits. If you choose to bring the matter to a supervisor—who might not work closely enough with the employee on a day-to-day basis to recognize the signs—make a point to do so from a place of concern rather than complaint.

As you go about your work, avoid engaging in gossip about a colleague’s mental health, and watch what you say to or about them. Remember, a mental or mood disorder is quite often not a matter of simply “cheering up,” “distracting yourself” or “snapping out of it.” It also doesn’t help to wonder aloud what the person has to be so depressed about or suggest that they exercise more—even if it’s a worthy suggestion. The best response? Treat the individual as you normally would and offer a supportive ear if she or he does choose to make struggles public. If you see or hear a sign that the person might harm themselves or others, alert your supervisor and the authorities.

If you regularly socialize outside the workplace with your coworker, the lines are a bit blurrier. The best advice is to try your best to keep work and home separate. At work, follow the basic guidelines offered above for a manager or coworker. Let the suggestions offered in the “Love and Madness” article in the March 2014 issue be a resource to guide you when you are interacting on personal time.

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