Difficult Conversations: Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

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While Mental Health Awareness month has come to an end, caring about the mental wellbeing of our friends, families and employees is timeless. There is no better time than right now, and everyday, to reach out to our loved ones, and our colleagues, to really, genuinely check in on them, all while remembering to also check in with ourselves. But, what if someone (specifically in this case an employee or direct report), discloses a mental health condition to you? What do you do, or say? This is a critical moment for both employer and employee.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that one in five people will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, and given the impact of coronavirus, experts do expect for that number to increase. Many common mental health conditions may qualify as protected disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, applicants and employees with mental health conditions are entitled to privacy and reasonable accommodations unless this causes an undue hardship for an employer or poses a direct threat of harm to the individual or others. To avoid the potential cost of a violation, employers must have a plan to balance the needs of their business with their duties under the ADA. 

In a Labor Law case not too long ago, a jury in western Pennsylvania awarded an employee $285,000 in damages ($250,000 of which were punitive) for an employer’s failure to accommodate their anxiety and PTSD after an employee sought two additional 10-minute breaks.  

Experts, like Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that focuses on changing the culture of workplace mental health, say that if an employee brings up or discloses a mental health condition to their employer, the next thing that is said or done is critical. 

Below are some considerations for if and when an employee discloses a mental health condition:

Acknowledge the effort it took for the employee to tell you. Even if nothing else happens, the best first thing you can do is thank the person for sharing the information. Don’t make it a big to-do, and don’t have a huge emotional response to it, either. The goal here is to normalize conversations like this and to not make the employee feel increased shame, or even fear about the future of their career. 

Give the person space to say what they want to say and tell you what they need in terms of flexibility or accommodations. This is a great opportunity to practice your listening skills. Listen actively, listen without judgement and be aware of your personal facial expressions and other non-verbal cues and gestures that can sometimes give off feelings of discomfort, and might make the other person begin to feel like they shouldn’t have told you. Curiosity is okay as long as you are mindful, though it might be best not to ask any additional questions, and instead let them lead the discussion and disclose as much or as little as they feel comfortable. 

Empathize, but don’t make it about you. One of the best ways to normalize the conversation around mental health, and the impact of reaching out for help, is when individuals hear from their peers, leaders and colleagues about their own mental health journeys. It’s possible that you or someone you’re close with has been through something similar, but don’t focus the conversation on you and your experience. Keep in mind that mental health issues and their causes manifest differently for everyone. The way one persons anxiety shows up will be different from the next. It’s safest not to assume that you “know what they’re feeling” and how it’s impacting how they show up in everyday life, including in their work. Just because they came to you to share their struggle, doesn’t mean you are now their therapist, doctor and or lawyer. Greenwood suggests that if you have the kind of relationship with the employee where you share personal stories, go ahead, but be sure that what you share is hopeful. Lastly, avoid downplaying their experience by insisting that everything will be OK because it was for you or someone else. 

Maintain confidentiality. Reassure the employee that you will make every effort to honor confidentiality. It can be helpful to explain to the employee that you may have to tell HR, too, and let them know why. If the person is uncomfortable with that, or worried about having something go into their employment file, you might say, “I may have to tell them eventually, but I can talk in generalities at first.” Depending on where you live, it may be required by law to go to HR once someone has disclosed a mental health condition, even if the employee hasn’t requested an accommodation, but telling HR may also ensure that the employee gets the legal protections they’re entitled to in order to avoid discrimination, as well as access to all the company’s resources and possible accommodations. If you’re unsure about local regulations, talk to HR without using the employee’s name. A very important thing to note, while it might be tempting to talk to others in the workplace about it for your own emotional support — or to explain why you’re moving work around — it’s not OK unless the employee expressly gives you permission to disclose this information. If they do, make sure that you are clear in any communication that the person has asked you to tell others so no one else thinks you’re talking behind the employee’s back.

Consider what changes you can make. There is a variety of things that your employee may want or need so that they can take care of their mental health. Ideally, if an accommodation is required, the best solution is one that is co-created for the person with HR and the employee. If HR can provide that employee with a ‘menu of options’ of what they have provided in the past to others with similar request, that’s helpful too so that the burden is not placed on the employee to come up with those options especially if they are not in the headspace to take the task on. 

Some of the changes made to working hours or workload might impact other people on your team, and you’ll have to figure out how to communicate with other team members why changes have been made to another employees schedule if asked. In this case, the best answers are those that are straight forward and simple without disclosing too much information. “It’s an accommodation,” or “We worked out different hours” might be enough to explain the changes. 

In some cases, an employee may just be disclosing their mental health as an FYI and they don’t need you to make any adjustments to their workload or schedule, so don’t make assumptions that they need accommodations. However, if they do ask, make it clear that your intention is to partner with them to figure out what sorts of accommodations can be made. Consider affirming them by saying something like “I hope I’ve made it clear that you are a valuable member of this team and organization. We’ll figure this out together.” You don’t have to have all the answers readily available during this initial conversation. Give yourself permission to not have the perfect response and take time to figure out what’s possible, collaborate with HR on it, and let the employee know you will follow up with them. Communication is key here, as it often is, so that they don’t feel left in the dark. 

In a survey conducted by Paychex surveying nearly 1,000 employees and over 380 supervisors to gather information on their companies’ mental health resources, how comfortable they feel broaching the topic, and their overall experience with mental health at work, a majority of supervisors felt moderately comfortable discussing mental health conditions with a subordinate. 45.3% of supervisors said they had received mental health awareness training, but supervisors who did not receive some sort of mental health awareness training were 6x more likely to report that they were not comfortable at all discussing a subordinates mental health condition. Of this same survey, half of employees believed people at work would view them differently if they were to discuss their mental health openly, and a quarter were unsure of the reaction. These results offer that providing mental health awareness training to supervisors may improve the comfort level of having and managing such gentle discussions, and that employees who know and understand that all supervisors have received such training may feel more comfortable having these tough conversations, too.  

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