Managing employees with mental health Issues

Valerie Rozova
March 2022

The Problem as it is

Mental disorders are the key causes of health problems. Meanwhile, the number of their victims is annually increasing worldwide. For instance, depression has become one of the most common diseases.

At some point in their lives, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental disorders. Meanwhile, 450 million people are currently suffering from them. During the pandemic, the figures got even worse. A few months after the pandemic started, 42% of the previously interviewed people admitted that their mental state worsened. The same happens in the workplace. In 2020, 76% of respondents had at least one episode of a mental disorder. Back in 2019, this figure was 59%.

According to WHO, depression costs the global economy $1 trillion a year. Due to employees' mental disorders, businesses lose over 200 million working days annually. Poor mental health costs British businesses £42-45 billion a year. To understand the origin of such figures, let's calculate the losses. Firstly, if an employee doesn't attend work, the company lacks productivity and progress but still pays. Secondly, if unhealthy employees attend the office, they still are not productive. The quality of their work decreases, but this is not all. Sometimes such stagnation influences the entire department. Sooner or later, companies have to fire such employees. Consequently, they face losses due to the absence of a specialist and spend time and money searching for a new candidate.

The problem should receive wide coverage, while employees need supportive measures and care. According to research, 86% of respondents are convinced that the appropriate company culture can help employees deal with mental illness more effectively.

In fact, only a few employers help their employees to get over mental disorders. Instead, most of them claim that such problems are outside their remit. For instance, they say:
  • "Mental health is not our responsibility, we are not a mental hospital, we need fighters, not losers";
  • "Mental health problems don't exist, but they are much easier to simulate than the physical ones";
  • "Mental health does not affect productivity significantly, because work distracts from problems";
  • "How can one define mental health issues if mental health is too vague to distinguish."

Defining Mental Health and Mental Disorder

According to WHO, mentally healthy employees:

  • Are aware of personal abilities and free from the imposter complex, use their skills without self-doubts.
  • Recognize their weaknesses, see individual growth areas, and work on their development. "Being imperfect" doesn't affect their productivity, make them upset, or encourage them to procrastinate.
  • Are ready to cope with admissible stress and problems, because they regard them as an integral part of the workflow and progress.
  • Work actively, show interest, and, though they have coffee breaks, don't procrastinate.
  • Are interested in common goals and the final product of their work. In a word, they are involved and communicate with colleagues.

The mental disorder involves changes in emotion, thinking, behavior, and body of a person (Wittchen G.-U. Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2006). Some scientists and physicians prefer to separate the concepts of "mental disorder" and "mental illness". In their opinion, the second implies a mandatory bodily pathology. In particular, a violation of the work of hormones and neurotransmitters. Since this is only an assumption, the ICD-10 uses the term "mental disorder" instead of "mental illness" and "mental disease".

The mental disorder involves changes in emotion, thinking, behavior, and body of a person (Wittchen G.-U. Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2006). Some scientists and physicians prefer to separate the concepts of "mental disorder" and "mental illness". In their opinion, the second implies a mandatory bodily pathology. In particular, a violation of the work of hormones and neurotransmitters. Since this is only an assumption, the ICD-10 uses the term "mental disorder" instead of "mental illness" and "mental disease".

Causes of Mental Disorders

Mental health depends on some socio-economic, biological, and environmental factors. Resistance to disorders depends on both the physical characteristics and the mental development of a person (Wittchen G.-U. Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2006). When employees face mental disorders, they tend to talk about anxiety, depression, burnouts, traumas, or post-traumatic syndrome.

There are two types of mental disorders. Exogenous disorders are triggered by external factors, such as alcohol, industrial poisons, narcotic and toxic substances, radiation, viruses, microbes, traumatic brain injuries, and psycho traumas. Endogenous disorders arise from such internal factors as chromosomal disorders, genetic diseases, and hereditary diseases. Many mental disorders have no exact causes, in such cases, experts suppose that they are triggered by a combination of factors. The list of mental disorders is constantly being revised. A few decades ago, social phobia was not classified as a mental disorder, meanwhile, homosexuality was regarded as one of them. Now things are quite the opposite.

Managing employees with mental health issues

In this article, though such cases are also important, we are not discussing what to do if a single employee experienced mental health issues. However, we are talking about mental disorders globally. The number of people suffering from them is growing daily and it inevitably affects companys' productivity and efficiency.

Mental disorders shape a new context every employer should know how to deal with. Here are the key steps a company can take to help its employees.

Step 1: fundamental. Raise awareness of mental disorders

It is important to discuss two problems at once. Most people don't know what a mental disorder is and what its symptoms are like. They may guess that something is wrong, but various prejudices don't let them react and ask for help.

Companies don't struggle against such prejudices, as a result, employees don't even realize that "something is wrong". That is why mental health and risks to it should be proactively covered. It is worth talking about statistics, cases, and their normality. All this will enable people to distinguish the changes in themselves without missing anything important.

Maybe you don't know anyone who takes days off due to mental health issues, it doesn't mean that nobody does it. Half of those who need help and treatment are afraid of condemnation, job loss, and inability to find a proper specialist. Employees worry and don't tend to speak up, because they don't want to look unreliable.

To help them, you need to fill your company with empathy and an attentive attitude to difficulties. If you look unhappy, oppress a person for mental health difficulties, others will not share their problems too. To prevent such cases, there are special laws. For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against employees with mental disorders. Obviously, people who just seem to have disorders also shouldn't be discriminated against.

All these are the first steps to let people take care of themselves carefully and to prevent potential problems. Additionally, a supportive approach will enable them to feel more relaxed and to share experiences. Obviously, an employee who feels bad, but does not open up and continues to do tasks and meet clients, can do more harm than the one who asks for a day off to see a doctor.

Step 2: standard. Start changes from the top and make an example out of leaders.

Managers should show that they are also struggling and facing difficulties. Of course, if this is true. You can also ask leaders to do this.

  • Before the pandemic, Roche Genentech released a series of videos where leaders talked about their mental health. The videos reached the Internet with the hashtag #Let'stalk.
  • When the CEO of SAP publicly says about meditating and monitoring mental health, 100,000 of his employees see that the company is aiming to build a culture of mental resilience.

The level of seniority usually does not correlate with mental disorders. Therefore, leaders also have difficulties. But they should be brave and understand that opening up is valuable for the whole company.

Step 3. Train managers to respond to difficult conditions of employees, and explain that communication with the team is their priority.

40% of employees all over the world claim that no one in their company has ever asked them if they are doing OK. In the same report, the employees noted that their "dream workplace " has an open and accepting culture, clearer information about where to go or whom to ask for support, and training. Obviously, companies lack such characteristics because managers either do not know how to communicate with employees or don't find it important.

A management system should work in a way where leads can improve their communication with employees. Such communication shouldn't be a mere formality. Instead, it should be efficient and include full-fledged personal meetings where employees will feel trust.

  • Make meetings as regular as checkups. Do not cancel them or outcast them if you have a packed schedule. People are your main source. Without them, anything loses its relevance.
  • Reshape evaluation meetings to let employees understand their potential, give and receive attentive feedback. When you work with the mental health of employees, you should also show them their capabilities and successes. All these things should be discussed.
  • Try to track the condition of an employee and see what is happening to them. Don't ask superficial questions, such as "How are you?". Instead, be specific and find what kind of help an employee needs. To make it more comfortable, explain, that the more you know, the more helpful you can be.
  • Don't make guesses about what a person needs. Most likely, different solutions will suit everyone at different times.
  • Managers and leaders usually succeed because they can understand complex situations and solve problems. Meanwhile, remember that people don't like to be "repaired", so don't use this approach with coaching and imposing solutions. Instead, be an attentive listener and offer help. Always make sure that your actions are appropriate.
  • Demonstrate empathy and care, but do not act as a psychotherapist. Probably you lack relevant competencies. Meanwhile, such behavior never leads to anything good.
  • Obviously, most cases related to mental disorders stay open-ended. To monitor them, you can set interim deadlines. It will enable you to adjust to new circumstances.

Remember that constant communication is the best way to prevent complications. So, to put a priority on it and stay involved. One hour a week brings a huge benefit.

Step 4. Help a person to cope with the issues by rebuilding and adapting your strategies.

  • Invest in education. Training is mandatory for employees, especially for leads and managers. They should know how to determine a person's condition, normalize it, and help employees understand such difficulties. This does not mean that managers should become therapists. However, they should be ready for difficult conversations with basic knowledge and tools. Also, they need to fight prejudice.
  • Become more sustainable for employees. Be flexible: many employees used to it during the pandemic. Respondents say that coming back to the office may harm their mental health. Enable employees to choose working days, days off, and projects. Also, let them plan their schedule.
  • When you provide an employee with a break, act within your means and consider all the company's possibilities and limitations. Keep in mind that long breaks can negatively affect employees' relationships with clients or the team. You have to take care of this in advance: distribute responsibility within the team, make sure that people will be rewarded for it.
  • Provide an opportunity to take a vacation. People with mental disorders should be able to keep the diagnosis and details of their well-being secret. If employees need a longer-term health care leave, they need to receive the appropriate papers from a doctor. In this case, the doctor is a mediator between the employee and the employer, who does not share the details of the diagnosis but states the fact of the disease and the need for treatment.
  • Provide support with additional tools. Launch support groups, recovery programs, and give additional paid vacations.

What other companies are already doing

  • Basecamp CEO Jason Fried recently announced: employees who need help, care, and support can design their work schedule and even work fewer hours. Remember that concessions don't lower your working standards. Instead, such flexibility enables your team to feel secure and satisfied even when something uncertain goes on.
  • In 2019, Bank of America discovered an increase in anxiety among employees. To solve this problem, the company launched a 15-month training program focused on stress tolerance.
  • Over 200 companies, including Unilever, Starbucks, and Zappos, have used mental Health First Aid at Work, a four to eight-hour course that teaches people how to communicate with struggling colleagues.
  • Two years ago, EY launched a We Care program. It educates employees about mental health issues, encourages them to seek help if they need it or to support colleagues struggling with mental disorders. The company also has a hotline that offers confidential support to employees.
  • Johnson&Johnson or RetailMeNot have launched support groups for employees. These groups improve the knowledge about mental health, unite people who want to help and share experiences, and support the struggling ones.
  • Bumble has a "burnout break" — an extra week of paid vacation from June 21 to June 25. The project aims to give 700 employees a week where they could be "fully offline."

Remember that you create services or products with the help of your people. Customers always see how your employees feel and judge the product by how lively, energetic and healthy people look. "We know that our customers aren’t just buying our software. They're also trusting the people who build, support, and sell that software," HubSpot Chief People Officer Katie Burke says. "As a result, we need to ensure those people are well-rested and able to support our customer and partner needs for the long haul. As leaders, it's our job to show our employees that taking time off isn’t just encouraged, it’s critical."

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