Let’s talk about mental health. I’ll go first.

I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder about 30 years ago and, thanks to doctors, medicine, insurance, and the love of my family and friends, it has largely been a nonissue since then. I’m revealing this information because we’ve got to become more comfortable talking about mental health issues at work for three primary reasons.

1. Mental illness is prevalent in America. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, 1 out of 5 adults experience some form of mental illness every year. This includes anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive episodes, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and OCD. Unfortunately, nearly 60% of people with a mental illness do not receive treatment for it.

2. Because of the pandemic and everything it brought with it (isolation, massive job losses, economic downturn, school closures, etc.), the authors of the article “The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention” predict we’re in store for an “overflow of mental illness.”

3. Even before COVID-19, studies showed that adolescents and young adults (known as Generation Z) were more depressed than previous generations at this age.

What was causing this depression for Gen Z prior to the pandemic? Global warming, mass shootings, sexual harassment and assault, family separations, work, finances and health-related concerns were cited as sources in the study “Stress in America: Generation Z” by the American Psychological Association.

Social media is another cause. “I think a lot of people in my generation struggle with (depression) due to the fact that we are so connected via the internet and social media, which brings a lot of pressure,” 21-year-old Margo Joel was quoted in the article “Gen Z: Studies Show Higher Rates of Depression” by Emily Seymour. Ironically, despite the ability to connect with people around the world, a study conducted by Cigna suggests that Gen Z is the loneliest generation of all.

Unfortunately, there is still such a stigma about mental illness for people my age that we are reluctant to talk about it. However, that’s not the case for younger people. In a 2019 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, 62% of people ages 20 to 37 said they feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work. Not surprisingly, only 32% of people over 50 said the same thing.

What can employers do about mental health issues at work?

First, help reduce the risk of work contributing to mental illness by implementing these strategies from the article “The Boss’ Guide to Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace” by Amy Morin:

1. Promote a work-life balance (insist employees take vacations, encourage a life outside of work).

2. Discuss mental health in the workplace (train supervisors on signs of mental health problems and how to respond).

3. Discuss free screening tools (Mental Health America offers them).

4. Contract with an employee assistance program and remind employees to use it if you already have one.

5. Make wellness a priority (offer wellness incentives).

6. Provide in-service events (such as workshops on stress management).

7. Support employees’ efforts to get help (allow mental health days off and flexible schedules).

8. Reduce the stigma (don’t punish employees for speaking up about their mental health issues by calling them “crazy” or disciplining them for taking time off for treatment).

9. Make strides one step at a time.

Regarding No. 7 above, about a decade ago, I was in a class with other HR professionals, most of whom were much younger than I. The instructor asked whether we thought employees should be able to take a paid “mental health day” off. Another woman my age and I were the only students who said employers should not allow it. As a baby boomer, I was taught that you go to work unless you’re physically incapable of doing so. Because of numerous workplace shootings by stressed out employees, I’ve since changed my mind.

Next, talk to employees when:

Their mental health issues are interfering with their work performance. I suggest following a format like this one (based on “How to Talk to a Depressed Employee” by Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D.):

State your concern for the employee. “Robin, I want to talk to you because I’m concerned about you.”

Talk about observable behavior. “You missed several important deadlines over the past two weeks.”

Acknowledge the change in behavior. “That’s just not like you.”

Encourage action. “If things in your personal life are affecting you, we have a confidential employee assistance program that you can call,” or, if your company doesn’t have an EAP, “You might want to talk to a professional about it.”

Be sympathetic but limit the conversation if the employee begins to reveal personal information.

Reinforce your concern. “I really want to help you get back on track.”

Reinforce the need for performance improvement. “It’s up to you whether you seek professional help or not, but I still need for you to meet your deadlines.”

While the last line above might sound harsh, it is important that employees know that having a mental illness does not excuse them from having to meet performance standards. It also might be the impetus they need to seek help.

They need an accommodation. Because California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act requires employers with five or more employees to accommodate employees with a mental disability, when employees indicate they need an accommodation, you should:

  • Analyze the essential duties of their job.
  • Identify any job-related limitations the employee has.
  • Identify possible reasonable accommodations.
  • Consider the preference of the employee.
  • Select and implement the accommodation most appropriate for both parties.
  • Document all the above.

For applicants and employees, please know that it is illegal for employers with five or more employees to discriminate against you for having a mental illness or retaliate against you for asking for an accommodation. Additionally, you are not required to reveal your mental illness unless you ask for an accommodation for it.

We shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to talk about mental health issues at work. After 30 years, I’m finally comfortable talking about it. I hope you will be too.

Robin Paggi is a training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.

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