Mental Health in the Office: Conversations to Have and Avoid

Every year around January, my social media feeds become flooded with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Since 2011, when Bell’s then-CEO George Cope developed this new corporate social responsibility program for the company, the initiative has generated millions of interactions and raised $7.7 million for mental health initiatives for just this year.

Even though our society has become more open to discussions about mental illnesses, the stigma around the topic is still very much apparent. For employers and HR managers, what are some precautionary steps you can consider to take care of your team?

Recognize the Issue

According to a study done by Johns Hopkins Medicine, “an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older […] suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.” Mental illness is not something that will cease to exist just because you don’t talk about it. At the same time, it is also not the most imperative topic or concern for many people. As an HR manager, here are some initiative efforts you can take:

  • Recognize that mental health issues exist, and that it can be daunting.
  • Let your employees know that you are willing to hear them out if they have concerns relating to mental health, and that your conversation will be confidential.
  • Learn about your country’s regulations about company’s obligations to accommodate mental illness. For example, the interactive process with ADA in the US.
  • Let them know that you are open to discussion for any work logistics that may need to be sorted out.

Which brings us to the next point…

Understand Your Employee’s Rights and Your Company’s Rights

Most employers and HR managers are not psychology specialists. It is understandable that even if an employee were to talk to you about mental health issues, you may not know exactly how to respond or deal with the situation. In times like this, it is best to consult professional guidelines.

  • Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), mental illness is discussed in the same way as physical disabilities in that if it is to a level of severity that impacts the individual’s day to day life, they are entitled to reasonable accommodation.

However, being entitled to accommodation does not mean they can do less work and still get paid the same. Employees are still expected to perform at the same standard as other employees. Therefore, if they were to ask for accommodations…

  • Ask your employee to have their physician fill out ADA paperwork.
  • Using that as a guideline, discuss possible arrangements that can work for both your employee and your company.
  • If you cannot come to an agreement with your employee or is unsure what is considered a “reasonable” arrangement, seek legal advice. Poorly handled mental health conversations and arrangements could potentially bring an ugly lawsuit and a bad reputation to your company.

Respect Space and Privacy

Mental illness, just like any other type of health concern, is not something that employees are always willing to disclose – especially if it is not directly affecting their work. At the end of the day, it is still extremely important to respect an employee’s privacy and space.

  • If they don’t want to discuss the topic, don’t try to force a conversation unless it’s affecting their performance significantly. In this case, direct the discussion towards performance rather than the employee’s medical conditions.
  • Some employees may just want to tell you they have mental health issues, but do not currently need additional support. Accept the knowledge and leave it at that.
  • Let your employee know should anything change in the future, to let you know right away.

Maintain Boundaries

Make it clear that you will only provide additional assistance based on the information they provide you. After you have provided all the necessary means for your employee to communicate with you, it is on them if they deliberately choose not to disclose any health issues or need for accommodations.

Mental health problems are not an easy topic to discuss. Be open to listening, be understanding. At the same time, also remember to stand your grounds with a reasonable extent as to what your company is able to provide, and kindly let them know if a certain request is simply impossible.