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Author: Lori Clyne, Director of Human Resources

One of the most difficult situations an employer can face is when they suspect an employee has a mental health issue. This situation can be recognized by a marked decline in productivity or a change in personality. As an employer, how can you legally help an employee with a mental health issue and still maintain respect for their privacy?

The stigma of mental health can make it difficult for employees to discuss and ask for help within their workplace. However, it is a conversation that can directly affect the productivity of an organization. Happy and healthy employees are more productive.

For an employee to feel comfortable discussing a mental health issue, the organization must have a culture of acceptance and trust which can be cultivated by:

  • Mental Health First Aid trainings offered to all employees
  • Specific supervisor trainings on how to have an appropriate conversation with employees and review of the organization’s policy on available accommodations
  • Health insurance benefits that include counseling/therapy for mental health
  • Company’s sponsored Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Consistent open dialogue with supervisors that includes discussion on self-care, stressors and workflow. It is important that these conversations are consistent. You cannot build trust and an open conversation with an employee from just their annual performance evaluation. By setting aside time to have a one-to-one conversation with your employee, you are telling them that they are important to you and to the organization.

If you suspect an employee is experiencing a mental health issue, ask yourself, “is this affecting their performance?”

If an employee’s performance has not been affected but you notice a change in personality, you can be supportive without invading their privacy. This can be done by asking open-ended questions and reviewing their self-care plan. You should allow the employee to decide what they reveal. If they choose to maintain their privacy then you can subtly direct them to outside resources, such as your company’s sponsored EAP or a health insurance counseling/therapy benefit.

If an employee’s performance has been affected, then you need to initiate a conversation. Start the conversation by explaining expectations and ask the employee why they are not being met. This could encourage the employee to talk freely and ask for additional support. This request could begin an interactive process to finding a solution that benefits both the employee and the organization. An example of an accommodation could be a flexible schedule that allows them to work from home once a week, coming in later in the day, working fewer hours per week or requesting FMLA. It is highly recommended that you seek advice from an attorney before you begin a formal interactive process.

A healthy organization cannot ignore the mental health conversation and should create a culture of kindness and respect for all employees.

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