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Coping with Employee Mental Health Issues

August 24, 2016, by Corina Sibley | Performance Management

One of our top questions we receive from clients is how to handle employee absences due to illness.  Please see our blog 3 Tips on Handling an Employee’s Absence Due to Illness.  A growing trend we are noticing is how often the illness is attributable to mental health.  Many managers feel they don’t have the right tools or experience to deal with these issues.   And because of the very real stigma associated with mental health issues, many employees do not open up to their managers about the challenges they are facing that oftentimes spill out into their performance at work.

According to CAMH, the incidence of mental illness in Canada is estimated at 1 in every 5 Canadians, or 20% of the population.  If you include how many Canadians are indirectly affected by mental illness via friends and family this number skyrockets to 100%.  From a cost perspective, it is estimated that the economic burden of mental illness in Canada is $51 billion per year.

Given the above statistics, it is very likely that at some point in your career you will either deal with a mental health issue yourself or have someone in your organization that is coping with it.  Here are a few tips to help you broach this delicate topic with an employee who may be struggling at work and whom you suspect may be dealing with a mental health issue.

1.  Observe

Before talking to your employee, ensure you have spent enough time observing their day-to-day behaviour and performance.  You want to be able to have a constructive conversation that is centred on facts and the effect the behaviour is having on her performance and co-workers.

2.  Prepare

Make sure you are prepared for your conversation.  Use all the data from your observations and put together talking points and practice prior to the meeting (you can role play with another manager if it will be helpful).  It may be an emotional meeting, so ensure you have a room with privacy, tissues in the room.  If your company has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), that your employee can tap into for additional help and counselling, have that information handy for your meeting as well.

3.  Meet and Ask

Go through your observations with your employee.  Get their input and feedback as well.  If they don’t volunteer right away that they may be struggling with an issue, ask in a very compassionate and respectful manner whether there is anything in their personal life that is impacting their performance at work.  Sometimes that is enough for an employee to open up about any struggles they may be having.  This would be a good time to bring up the EAP service and encourage them to access it.  Let them know that you are there to support them.

4.  Repeat

Realize that you may have to go through this process several times to get to the bottom of the issue.  If you are truly concerned for your employee’s health and safety or that of his/her co-workers, you can suggest they make an appointment with their doctor.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in dealing with such a complex issue.  The first step is always to ask your employee if there’s anything that you’re not aware of that is hampering their ability to be successful at work.  Once you have more information, it is easier to make a game plan both for the business and for the health of your employee.

I will leave you with a link to a very powerful YouTube video clip called the Gestalt Project  that highlights some of the stigma around mental health; this was shown at a recent seminar on Mental Health in the Workplace via Bernardi HR Law.  If you have 4 mins to spare I highly encourage you to view it.  It will help provide perspective so you can approach this type of conversation with compassion.

Have you had to deal with mental health issues at work?

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