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Relate

How can I approach an employee about their mental illness?

When you see behaviour that suggests an employee has a mental health problem, the best approach in most cases is to meet with the person to privately talk about your concerns about their work-related performance. In larger organisations, the human resources department or advisor may liaise with staff.

Below are suggestions for how you can:

Prepare for the meeting

It’s important to prepare for the meeting, by taking the following steps.

  • Before the meeting ask if the employee wants to bring an advocate, trusted colleague, friend or family member to support them.
  • Find out what resources and adjustments your organisation can offer an employee who is in distress. Have this information at hand when you meet your employee.
  • Spend some time looking into the basics of mental health and illness before you talk with the employee. Misunderstanding and fear are the greatest barriers people face in dealing with a mental health problem.
  • Think about how you can make the person feel safe and comfortable.
  • In addressing any performance issues, be honest, upfront, professional and caring.
  • Think about the person’s strong points and contributions they have made. Talk about the ways the employee is valued before raising areas of concern.
  • Consider open questions that will encourage an employee to request support or adjustments. At the same time, remember your job is not to probe into an employee’s personal life, to diagnose a problem or to act as their counsellor.
Meet with the employee

Consider how well you know the employee. Some people will feel more comfortable if you treat the meeting as a performance review, focusing first on their strong points as a worker before addressing areas of concern. This format may make some people defensive, though, so perhaps begin by stating that you are concerned about the employee, and say why.

If the situation is serious enough that the loss of a job is imminent, it is important to be clear and document the meeting as a performance issue so there is no confusion.

In either case, assure the employee you intend to work with them to help them get back on track or get the supports they may need.

Before assuring an employee their information will be kept confidential, make sure you know what the company policy is, who you have to share the information with and in what form. Have a copy of the company policy available for the employee.

Tips for the meeting:

  • have your meeting in a neutral and private space, not in your office
  • make sure there are no interruptions
  • switch off your mobile phone
  • ask open, non-controlling questions such as ‘I am wondering how you are doing’ rather than ‘what’s wrong with you?’
  • always give your employee time to answer questions
  • try to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective.

It is important that you:

  • raise the possibility of providing adjustments if needed
  • provide access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or referral to community services
  • assure the employee that meetings with an EAP provider are confidential
  • discuss whatever adjustments can be made to help them at work
  • set a time to meet again to review the employee’s performance
  • agree with the individual what they want colleagues to be told
  • document the meeting fully.

There are some things you should not say or do:

  • don’t offer a ‘pep talk’
  • don’t be accusatory
  • don’t say “I’ve been there” unless you have been there
  • don’t try to give a name to the underlying issue – even if you suspect a particular illness or problem, focus on how the employee’s behaviour is concerning you and how you want to help them improve
  • if you learn a specific illness is causing the behaviour, don’t ask what ‘caused’ the illness
  • focus on solutions.

Your employee may not know, or may refuse to acknowledge, they have a mental health problem. In that case, there may be little you can do to help them. At this point, focusing on work performance is the best approach.

Make sure you deal with any hurtful gossip or bullying promptly and effectively. It is your responsibility to ensure employees are not bullied or harassed on account of a health issue. 

Follow-up

Your organisation’s involvement doesn’t end with this meeting. You’ll want to follow-up with the employee, or designate someone who can follow-up on your behalf.

Keep your notes on the meeting in a secure location to maintain confidentiality.

To provide appropriate adjustments to help them at work, you will need to know:

  • if there are any functional limitations that could affect the person’s ability to carry out the essential duties of their job
  • what adjustments would enable them to continue or resume doing their job effectively.

The employee may not disclose a problem to you, but may seek help from the EAP provider or from a community service provider (such as a doctor, psychologist, or counsellor). After receiving professional help, the employee might decide to put in a request for workplace adjustments.

If the employee’s performance has not improved by the time you meet again after the designated period, and there has been no request for workplace adjustments or leave, it would be appropriate only at that point to consider disciplinary action.

Be sure that you and the employee understand the employer’s obligations to provide workplace adjustments. If there is a collective agreement in place, be familiar with the terms of the collective agreement.

What if I’m really anxious about strange behaviour?

The vast majority of people with mental illness who are at the point of returning to or entering the workforce are usually acutely aware of the stigma of mental illness and try to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. However, during periods of illness some people with serious mental illness may respond inappropriately. Some people may tic or hum, talk to themselves or engage in other behaviour considered to be strange. This is not deliberate. The important point to consider is whether this behaviour interferes with their ability to perform the job.

Are people with a mental illness potentially violent?

As a group, people with mental illness are no more violent than other members of the general population.

How do I manage the rest of the team when someone has a mental health issue?

An employee’s mental ill health could impact on the rest of the team. This could be in response to:

  • the person’s particular symptoms or behaviour while unwell
  • any adjustments that are made to help them at work
  • an increased workload for others if the person is not well enough to work.

You should:

  • be open with the team as long as it does not breach any agreed confidentiality with the employee concerned
  • identify working conditions that may negatively influence the wellbeing of the team, and change them where you can
  • create an environment where staff can air their concerns openly to avoid gossiping and any resentment towards the member of staff who is experiencing mental health problems
  • treat all staff fairly.

If a member of staff with a mental health condition is offered flexible working hours as a reasonable adjustment for example, it may be appropriate to offer the same conditions to all staff.

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