The Dos and Don’ts of Addressing Mental Health Challenges in the Workplace

October 10 is World Mental Health Day , created to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health.

I tuned into a session from the Foundation’s Mental Health in the Workplace Today virtual conference titled Mental Health at the Supervisor Level and wanted to share some helpful takeaways in this post. Dr. Sandra Primiano led the session—She holds a Ph.D. degree and a Psy.D. degree from Université du Quebec à Montréal and is currently the vice president of Stay at Work Services at Homewood Health in Quebec. 

So let’s dive into practical suggestions and strategies managers can use to recognize mental health concerns as well as strategies for prevention and early intervention.

A stat from the Canadian government revealed that 82% of employees kept a mental health diagnosis hidden from their employer. Supervisors need to learn about mental health to contribute to building a culture of psychological health and safety in the workplace. Managers can prepare for possible encounters with an employee experiencing a mental health challenge and work to reduce negative stigma. Since many mental illnesses are considered disabilities, managers need to be prepared to make accommodations and connect employees to external forms of assistance.

Common mental health challenges include depressive, anxiety, trauma-related and substance/addictive disorders. Employees may require professional support if they experience changes in personality, mood and/or behavior that are disruptive and persistent. Signs include:

  • Consistently late, absent, or missing meetings
  • Increased errors and lack of interest in work responsibilities
  • Frequent breaks, tiredness and fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and poor memory
  • Irritability or crying without reason
  • Change in appearance and personal hygiene
  • Expressing thoughts of helplessness.

Here are some dos and don’ts for managers when handling different mental health situations in the workplace:

DO consider intervening if the signs above are reported/observed, if there is a change in work quality or increased complaints, if coworkers express concerns or if drug/alcohol impairment is evident while at work. Additionally, if the employee self-reports a mental health issue or a non-work life stressor (i.e. divorce, loss of a loved one), a manager could intervene and offer support.

DO remember that psychological health and safety is one component of a comprehensive workplace health and safety plan. Utilize this free resource from the National Standard of Canada for details on the 13 factors that affect psychological health and safety in the workplace.

DON’T assume you know the cause of changes in work performance or attempt to make a diagnosis and act as a counselor. Conversely, don’t put blinders on and conclude problems will resolve without action from a supervisor. Don’t be afraid to be direct when expressing concerns to an employee. Additionally, don’t assume responsibility for the employee’s well-being, but do offer information and support.

DO be sure to allow plenty of time and choose a private location when planning to start a conversation with an employee that you feel may be having a mental health challenge. Show interest and compassion, be patient and ask questions one at time. During the conversation, listen, don’t interrupt and get clarification if needed. Finally, ask them what they need and how you can help. Explore options if the employee wants assistance. Those could include an EAP, speaking to HR or another manager, or contacting a health professional.

DO be there to observe/identify a possible challenge. Offer supportive performance management focusing on solutions and employee success that can contribute to the employee’s well-being. Guidelines for positive performance management include:

  • Lead a culture of support
  • Be prepared for conversations
  • Collaborate to improve performance
  • Engage employee in finding solutions
  • Follow up and review.

When responding to employees in crisis, DO

  • Listen without rescuing —There isn’t a “quick fix.”
  • Be empathetic and let them know you care. Reassure them they are not alone.
  • Help them remain hopeful 
  • Connect them to benefits coverage
  • Offer to find the support (e.g., EFAP).

When dealing with an employee in crisis, DON’T:

  • Use re-assuring phrases like “You’ll get over it soon.”
  • Judge or blame, and avoid statements that could trigger guilt.
  • Give personal advice or relate it to a personal experience.
  • Tell them to behave differently.
  • Argue, challenge, deny or minimize the situation.
  • Attempt to make a diagnosis or take on a counsellor role.
  • Assume someone else is supporting the employee in crisis.

DO take any mention of suicide seriously. Signs of suicide include an employee making statements in person or on social media about not wanting to live anymore. Behaviors could include isolation/withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed, putting affairs in order and giving away belonging as well as interest in weapons, violence or drugs.

If an employee is displaying signs of suicide, DO be direct and up-front and ask if they are thinking of taking their own life. DON’T brush it off or assume they don’t mean it. Take it seriously and tell them they are important and that you care. Seek their agreement to accept help and initiate the next step in getting support. If the suicidal situation seems imminent, take action immediately and call 911, telling the employee that it is your duty to ensure their safety.

When managing mental health concerns, supervisors should actively improve their ability to provide support and prepare in advance for situations where you may need to approach an employee. Connect with your HR and leadership team to know your boundaries, responsibilities and options for providing accommodations and utilizing benefits.

Visit the International Foundation’s Workplace Mental Health Resources page for more resources and research.

Additional Resources

CANADA

Talk Suicide Canada
24/7 English and French: 1-833-456-4566
24/7 Quebec: 1-866-277-3553
4 p.m.-Midnight ET: Text 45645

Crisis Text Line
24/7: Text HOME to 741741 Community Resources
Visit https://talksuicide.ca/community-resources to find helplines in your community

UNITED STATES

New National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
24/7 Call or text for English/Spanish: 9-8-8
24/7 Call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Alliance on Mental Illness
M-F 10 a.m.-10 p.m. ET: 1-800-950-6264
Text: 62640 | Chat: nami.org/help

Crisis Text Line
24/7: Text HOME to 741741

Cara McMullin
Communications Specialist

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