How to Get the Most Out of Employees Who are Dealing With Mental Health Issues
Over the past few years, a lot of progress has been made in raising awareness about depression. However, we still have a long way to go when it comes to eliminating the stigma surrounding people with mental health problems, especially in the workplace.
Many employers hesitate to hire people who admit that they have mental health issues. This is because of widespread misconceptions, such as the belief that people with such conditions won’t perform well, or might even disrupt the workplace.
“This is unfortunate, since there are a lot of high-functioning, highly accomplished, and talented individuals who are able to navigate the daily rigors of stressful industries despite their mental health condition,” says Dr. Harry Trinidad, founding partner of Better Steps Psychology.
In fact, a lot of people with mental health conditions function perfectly well in the workplace, but choose to keep their conditions a secret to avoid discrimination. “Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are manageable conditions with the right care and lifestyle,” says Bianca Locsin, counseling psychologist and clinic operations director at Better Steps.
“HR professionals can ask for assessments or fit to work certifications when applicants disclose their mental health conditions, instead of outright rejecting or avoiding such applicants who may be qualified and functioning well,” Locsin continues.
Renz Argao, supervising psychologist at the psychotrauma clinic of University of Santo Tomas, agrees that employees with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can perform just as well as people without these conditions. “Companies can create a positive and supportive workplace, come up with guidelines for accommodations, conduct training and wellness programs, and promote a mental health friendly work culture,” he says.
“I know a lot of companies and employers who, in small ways, have made accommodations for people with mental health issues,” Argao adds. For example, he knows an HR manager who started to raise mental health awareness by conducting fun, informal psychoeducation programs at the BPO company where he worked. While it was a small step, Argao said it went a long way in breaking the stigma on mental health in the company.
So what should you do if it turns out that one of your employees is dealing with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder? Honestly, treat them the same way you would a person who has a medical condition, or is going through personal problems.
The first thing is to give them the emotional and social support they need. “Employers need to be understanding and extend their patience in trying to see how the person’s problem affects their work performance. Sensitivity, compassion, and an open mind are important,” Argao says.
“I believe the best way to handle employees who are presenting symptoms of mental health issues is to have open lines of communication that will allow them to become aware of their current behavior or performance,” Dr. Trinidad agrees. “Provide a safe and nonjudgmental venue for them to discuss their problems, and if a mental health issue does exist, help them get the professional help they need.”
Dr. Trinidad reiterates that mental health issues should be handled the same way as any other illness, “requiring that both employee and employer are made aware of the condition, correct diagnosis is made, and proper treatment given, all within the context of a properly created and communicated company policy.”
It helps if you’re willing to make special accommodations, such as allowing them to work flexible work hours, reducing their workload, or reassigning tasks within the team. Also consider including mental health issues as a valid reason for sick leave.
Argao also encourages taking preventative measures to decrease the chances of employees falling into depression, such as stress management programs. Companies can also look into wellness activities like sports and recreation, meditation, relaxation activities, and team building. After all, whether or not your staff have mental health problems, these activities will surely boost their morale, loyalty to the company, and productivity.
Some employers agonize over what to do when a valued staff member has such a serious bout of depression that they need to take an extended break or even check themselves into a hospital. Should they consider their employee unfit to work and fire them, or wait for them to make a complete recovery?
“Though mental health issues can become chronic, they are certainly neither insurmountable nor lethal,” says Raphael Inocencio, founding partner and consultant at Better Steps Psychology. “These employers should remember the positive benefits and contributions that this employee had on their organizations and see past their mental health problems, just the same as if a valued member of your organization was suddenly stricken with heart disease or chronic diabetes—both chronic conditions as well that are perfectly manageable.”
Employers should also have their employee undergo a psychological evaluation before making any major decisions. “Some conditions have better prognosis than others, and many factors influence this,” Argao says. “It is better to have a comprehensive assessment to guide the decision process.”