Dealing with mental illness in the workplace

While mental health issues and illnesses may not be as taboo as they once were, it can still be hard to deal or talk about in your professional setting. This isn’t just true for those who are suffering with mental health, but also for those in more managerial roles, watching their subordinates and co-workers struggle.

Struggling with mental illness is extremely difficult. Adding even more pressure is the fact that, like all other types of illness, it is not just the sufferer who struggles. Friends, family and even co-workers and supervisors all feel the effects of mental illness.

Often EAs find themselves in leadership positions, responsible for those around them. if you are an EA with leadership responsibilities, chances are you have already or will in the future be in a position where a subordinate is suffering a mental illness, which, in turn, causes their work to suffer.

How do you cope, and help them cope? First you need to understand mental illness in a professional setting.

A 2014 BMC Psychiatry study by Anthony LaMontagne, et al. showed that both clinical (severe depression and anxiety disorders) and sub-clinical (psychological distress) are very common in the workplace. Taking information from Australia’s 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, the study saw that an estimated 15 percent of the population had a history of a severe depressive disorder. While 61 percent of those people reported that they were recovered – either being in or out of treatment; 17 percent reported suffering major depression and were not in treatment.

While mental illness may not always be directly linked to the workplace, it can certainly have an impact on how the person is able to handle it. This is where management can step up and work their employee to ensure the workplace is a supportive place rather than another stress inducer that stalls their recovery.

LaMontagne’s research during his career has led to an integrated approach to dealing with mental illness in the workplace.

This approach has been adopted by several organisations to help promote positive change in workplace mental illnesses. It’s actually a very simple concept on paper, though it needs commitment from management and staff to implement. The approach has three elements within it:

  • ‘Prevent Harm’
  • ‘Promote the Positive’
  • ‘Manage Illness’

The bene ts of implementing this integrated approach are innumerable for management, staff and the organisation as a whole. Of course, LaMontagne’s approach is just one way of handling things. There are many programs available to organisations, which help to provide support.

One such program is Assure Programs’ Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The EAP is a short-term, highly confidential counselling program available to employees to assist them through work-related or personal issues, including mental illness.

It’s a partnership program which works with organisations to ensure employee well-being. The partnership can lead to increased employee performance and motivation, employee retention, reduced absenteeism, and improved work environments and work relationships. All of these things are not only highly beneficial for the organisation, but the management and staff. The EAP is available not just to employees, but also their immediate families (where appropriate), managers and leaders, and employers and employees cooperatively.

Tips to help you enhance participation

  • Identify champions and supporters early from various levels and disciplines. Keep them engaged throughout the process, helping to guide the strategy and communicate it across the organisation, engaging others as they go.
  • Encourage staff to have a voice, taking care to involve those who may be less powerful so they can participate freely (e.g. anonymous suggestion boxes).
  • Provide safe and open communication forums where staff can express opinions and be open to new ideas.
  • Provide open access to all information and progress made in developing and implementing the strategy.
  • Encourage managers to provide regular opportunities for staff
    to give feedback about issues related to mental health and wellbeing and the overarching strategy (e.g. through staff surveys, suggestion boxes, small group meetings, a dedicated email account, etc). Ensure this includes options to give feedback anonymously.
  • Inform staff of the efforts to make change across your organisation (e.g. at the board and executive level) making it clear that you are not just asking staff to make change, but are working on multiple levels.

Tips to help with communication

  • Highlight the bene ts that the strategy can have for customers, clients and stakeholders, your staff and the organisation/employers (continuously reiterate the value proposition, or ‘what’s in it for me?’).
  • Avoid being driven exclusively by incidents or problems. Language that identifies concerns, problems or deficits, or worse still ‘crises’, has the potential to close down communication and engagement.
  • Frame the issue in positive and negative terms – ask both what is and isn’t working.
  • Don’t define individual people as reasons for the problems; instead, focus on the influence of the work environment and nature of work.
  • Use clear and simple language.
  • Use evidence to support what you are doing.
  • Communicate regularly to reiterate key messages.

Leading the way to a mentally healthy workplace

  • Demonstrate a visible, active commitment to mental health in the workplace.
  • Speak openly about mental health in the workplace, including any personal experiences.
  • Make mental health an objective of the business.
  • Treat mental health as you would physical health – integrate good health and safety management into all business decisions, policies and procedures.
  • Develop your own leadership and people management skills.
  • Allocate necessary resources for change and establish performance measures.
  • Communicate a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and discrimination.
  • Provide flexible working conditions that promote employee mental health.