Hausmann Group January 3, 2017 8 min read

Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

The holidays are behind us, and for many of us the last few weeks have been joyous and fun.  But for some, this time of year is particularly difficult.   Depression and anxiety can be a greater struggle to manage during and shortly after the holidays.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is also an issue for many, as the days are short and often grey.   In the last few weeks, you may have noticed some behavior changes in a few of your employees.

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So what can you do, as a manager or HR professional, if you have an employee struggling with a mental health issue that is affecting their work performance?  There are several areas to consider.

Confidentiality - When an employee breaks a leg, everyone is offering a hand, and sympathy.  But when an employee is struggling with a mental health issue, the response is often very different.   Mental illness still carries a stigma.  The individual might be very concerned about other employees knowing that they have a mental illness. Do everything you can to protect the individual’s privacy if that is what the employee wants.   HR persons and managers (and any co-workers who are already aware of what is really going on) should be consistent in having a generic response to questions from others.

Accommodations – Many mental illnesses are considered disabilities, and you will want to consider what accommodations you can make to help the individual.  For example, with Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are specialized lamps that may help.  With SAD and other disorders, adjusting work hours may be an option.   Shifting certain work responsibilities in the team might be another idea.  The employee might need time off to adjust to newly prescribed medication.  If you are considering disciplinary action due to poor performance or problematic behavior, and you suspect that a mental health disorder may be involved, talk to an attorney about what accommodations may be considered reasonable before taking any action with the employee.  

Emergencies – If the employee is talking about suicide, get help immediately. If an employee calls you from home and indicates he is going to harm or kill himself, call the police. They will visit the person and do a welfare check.  If the comments are more vague (ie. Lately they’ve been thinking about suicide, but are not in crisis at that time), urge them to talk to your Employee Assistance Program (if you have one).   If you do not have an EAP, refer the employee to local resources such as the United Way, Suicide Hotline, or Recovery Dane.  Find out what resources are available through your Health carrier (24 hour nurse hotline, grief counseling, etc).  Having a list of local resources handy will allow you to respond to an employee as the need arises.

Threats of Violence – All employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment for all employees.  Whether the individual has a history or diagnosis of mental illness or not, threats of violence should not be tolerated.   If an employee is threatening direct and imminent harm of others, call the police.  If the threat is less specific, don’t just let it go.  Depending on the situation, you may want to do an unpaid suspension while the situation is investigated further.  An attorney can guide you through the process of deciding what actions to take, depending on the specifics of your unique situation.   

Mental Health First Aid – Consider taking a Mental Health First Aid course.  You will learn about different types of illnesses and their symptoms, local resources, how to respond during a crisis, and how to offer help to someone struggling with an illness. You can find a local training resource at

Compassion, but not Counseling – Your role as an HR person or Manager is to reach a level of understanding so you can help that person be successful in their role and in the company, if possible.   Recognize that the individual has an illness, and is not a bad person.  Avoid judging the person, and focus on addressing their behavior and any appropriate accommodations they may need.  Likewise, your role is not to provide counseling.  Identify local resources for the individual, and resist the urge to diagnose the person yourself, or provide advice. 

As a Manager or HR professional, we’ve all dealt with employees with medical illnesses, injuries, pregnancies, and other physical issues.  But we often feel ill-equipped when faced with an employee with a mental health problem.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  With education, preparation, and compassion, you can increase your confidence in effectively handling what can often be a delicate situation.