Responding to Mental Illness in Your Workforce: Part 1, Leading a Culture Change
As a leader in your organization, you’ve undoubtedly had to handle situations when you’ve been made aware that employees are dealing with emotional distress or mental illnesses. In simple terms, you have a responsibility to not only your organization, other staff and mid-level managers, but also to the people who work for you who are also part of the 25% of the U.S. population diagnosed with a mental illness.
These illnesses include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and a number of anxiety disorders. While substance abuse is not strictly considered a mental disorder, new science shows that it does indeed result from differences in brain chemistry, and psychiatrists are now being trained to treat it as an illness. Altogether, these illnesses are termed “behavioral” healthcare issues because the first symptoms result in unusual changes in how a person normally acts.
How should you respond so that the culture of your organization is compassionate, fair and realistic?
Create an atmosphere of overall wellness based on both physical and mental health
The topic of mental illness in a workplace can be uncomfortable for employees on every level. Make sure that you relay – to both management and staff — your commitment to balancing productivity and financial viability with support for employees when they are managing stressors in their lives.
Send group emails to your staff, perhaps on a monthly basis, stressing the relationship between mental and physical health. All research shows a clear connection between the two, and you can set the tone by displaying posters and flyers in your workplace. You can get copies from national advocacy organizations, such as those listed at the end of this piece. And you can copy content from their websites directly into the email messages you send regularly.
To emphasize your belief in the relationship between mental and physical health, think about improving food choices in cafeterias, discouraging smoking and taking short “stress breaks” throughout the day.
If you offer health insurance benefits to your employees, check that your plan is in compliance with new mental health insurance parity legislation. Then make sure that you take the opportunity to send information about the coverage to your employees as part of your regular emails.
If you offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), encourage employees to use its services, and explain that the program is bound by confidentiality and privacy policies. In a constructive way, educate employees about when and why the program may need to alert you if – and only if — a person is in a psychiatric crisis and may be in danger of harming self or others. Especially during traditionally stressful times, such as holidays, send group emails to your staff reminding them of the availability of the EAP.
Deal with Stigma
Most people who have a mental health diagnosis speak about the stigma of “coming out” in the workplace. Admitting a diagnosis can be a risk, depending on the culture of the workplace. Almost every person with mental illness, at one job or another, has feared that his or her illness results in greater scrutiny of performance and possibly termination.
You can start the conversation about the reality that people with mental health diagnoses can and do recover without any change in their productivity. Just as with other illnesses, such as heart disease or cancer, when people receive treatment, they return to work and to filling the responsibilities and obligations of their lives.
Although many professionals in the past would warn people with mental illness to “avoid stress,” newer thinking is that people learn their strengths and weaknesses and use their own personal coping skills to manage the normal stressors in life. We’re recognizing that there’s no such thing as a job without stress, so rather than limit people, encourage them to seek treatment when they feel symptoms that make them feel overwhelmed or vulnerable to their illness.
Let the word “mental” be a safe one for your employees to use. Let them know that needing a “mental health day” is as valid as needing a sick day for any other illness. And let them know that you value them and will encourage managers and supervisors to be as flexible with deadlines and assignments as they would be with employees who must take family medical leave or sick time for other medical conditions.
Learn and Train
Because of the longstanding stigma associated with mental illnesses, many myths exist among people who have never had the illness or have never supported a family member, friend or loved one who’s suffering from mental illness. Even in the year 2011, people say that they had never learned anything about symptoms and treatments until they faced a personal or family crisis.
Most efforts to change the culture of a workplace to be fairer to people facing these crises start with education. At the end of this article, we provide sources of education about each individual illness, as well as current successful treatments. These sources are funded to provide not only printed materials that you can use to educate your staff, but also electronic newsletters and in-person training events.
Take advantage of these resources, first yourself, then for your management, then for your staff. Learn as much as you can, so you’re in a good position to support your entire organization.
Mental Health America (www.mentalhealthamerica.net)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov)
by Carol A. Kivler, MS, CSP
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