— February 1, 2019
If you work with at least five people, there is a high likelihood that one of them is suffering from some form of mental illness, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). And yet we usually treat mental illness like a secret personal issue, the way people used to whisper about cancer or divorce.
But this is a business issue. As a reader from Guatemala wrote to me, “Nobody is planning on this, but we get struck by depression, anxiety, and more. We deal with people on our teams who are struggling with these problems, and conversations, relationships and productivity get hurt.”
This Is Not Going Away
And the problem will continue to grow as we hire younger people, because a study from the NIMH found that 35 percent of Millennials will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, 25 percent will be diagnosed with a substance addiction, and 20 percent will have a behavioral disorder.
Unfortunately, work environments can exacerbate mental illness. Work today is often stressful and pressured, with nonstop meetings, constant smartphone access, and heightened expectations for deadlines and deliverables. Worse, in the world of tech companies, startups, and co-working spaces, there’s often alcohol on premises; even at traditional companies, going out for a drink is a common way for colleagues to discuss tough topics and for teams to bond.
Low-Key, Humane Approaches
If you’re not already aware of employee mental health issues in your organization, it’s time to get ready to face them. Here are some things to take into account.
Awareness: Employees with mental health problems may not look sick, or even act particularly distressed. You’re not likely to see the same arc of disease as you will with an employee who, for example, gets chemo treatments for cancer or has sciatica and can’t carry out all their tasks.
Stress can be a precipitating factor for mental health conditions. And although you may know when an employee is going through a tough situation at work, you won’t necessarily be aware of the pressures that confront them outside work.
Interaction: When colleagues use language like “She’s nuts” or “He’s bonkers,” they’re usually just saying that someone’s tough to work with. But those words maintain the perception of stigma around mental illness, the belief that it is something to be disparaged and avoided, and they may prevent people from seeking the help or accommodations they need. Be conscious of language that’s charged in this way, and encourage people — and yourself — to say “She’s so difficult” or “He’s obnoxious,” which are likely to be more accurate, and will create the possibility for effective coaching or feedback, while diminishing the perceived disgrace of mental illness.
Keep your managerial focus on work performance, which you can see and measure, rather than someone’s mental state, which you’ll often know nothing about. If you suspect that a team member is suffering, you can express support while talking with them about their work: “I noticed you seemed to be having trouble focusing on the conversation; would now be a good time for a break?” “Are you able to do the things we need you to do?” If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, ask in the same way you would if you saw them limping, “Are you feeling okay? Anything you need me to know?”
Practical accommodations: Even highly functional people who suffer from mental illness may benefit from not being in the office every day. Consider flex time and telecommuting options. Open-plan office space may be too distracting or triggering, and if more structural privacy is not an option, you may at least want to be able to provide items like sound-blocking headphones. Ensure that schedules and deadlines do not force a situation in which employees have to be “always on” with no opportunity to rest and recover.
Help employees, particularly younger ones, who have less experience caring for themselves, by maintaining consistent schedules and work rhythms. When planning work-related social events, make sure there are appealing nonalcoholic alternatives and that no one who opts for them is met with scorn or jokes. If you provide health insurance, have lists of plan-approved providers posted and available, and if you have an employee assistance plan, highlight the availability of counsel and support.
Keep in mind that what employee’s needs may be very different from another’s, despite their having the same general diagnoses. One of the best things you can do is to be trustworthy enough that employees are willing to volunteer information about their situation, so you can plan what to do together.
Here are some useful links to helpful sites and reading material. Get advice from both legal and psychiatric experts to identify other valuable practices, as well as language or behavior to avoid.
Some employees may find it helpful to read about mental health and wellbeing. A book won’t fix things, but it can be reassuring to know that lots of people have felt similar needs for support.
Emotional First Aid by Guy Winch
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers
How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry