How to Manage People with Mental Health Issues
The other day I was on a panel about mental illness in the workplace, and so many employers and HR directors attended, I realized a blog with some non-legal advice could help a lot of people.
Hi, I'm James Rabe, and I deal with depression and anxiety, mostly managed, but it has been a long and slow walk back from my last and darkest bout with depression. I never think of myself as being "cured". Instead, I think of myself as acquiring more and more tools to keep it all moving along, moving forward, and enjoying life.
According to this survey, employers worry the employee won't be able to cope with the work, won't fit in, or will need to take a lot of time off. Does reality match the stigma? Not really. Obviously, some people will fit that description, but that's true with all employees. And in that sentence is the answer to how you manage people with mental health issues.
In the book, “First Break All the Rules, What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently” (by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman), the idea is to hire the person with the five-lane-interstate for the skill you need, That skill is their gift, their focus, and their love. In that area, they will excel!
For example, hire someone that loves and excels at managing salespeople to manage a sales force. I know, it's counterintuitive, but that may not be your most successful salesperson.
It’s the same with hiring or retaining people dealing with a mental health issue. Can they do the job? Is it the five-lane interstate for them? If so, hire them. But, just as with most employees, if you try to move them to a job for which they aren’t equipped, it could lead to disappointment for both of you. That doesn't mean they can't grow with your company, it just means you're matching the job to the talent.
Will you have to deal with a bunch of poor attendance, low motivation, and poor work? Nope. According to MentalHealth.gov, "employers who hire people with mental health problems report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees."
There are a few things to remember…
Accountability – Don’t shy away from holding employees dealing with mental health issues accountable. They’re there to do a job. Respect them as people and employees, but don’t set the bar lower.
Respect – You can see a broken leg, you can’t see depression. But they’re both very real. Please don’t invalidate their lived experience (something as simple as, Employee: “I’m having a rough day, Hank.” Hank: “Well, you look great!”). Hank is telling you something important, maybe just venting, but hearing what's being said is so important.
It’s your job to manage ‘em, not "fix ‘em" – Please, don’t suggest ways to cope unless you've been asked for that advice. If the employee asks, cool, but suggestions like, “Just look on the bright side” and “My aunt just started eating a lot of guacamole and bananas and she’s happy all the time!” won’t do any good. Delicious, but not helpful.
Confidentiality - Even if they’re open about it, and seem to tell everyone, it’s their story to tell. What they tell you is confidential.
Cost - Many employers know they may be asked for 'reasonable accommodations" for an employee to do their job. Sometimes that means a lot of money. When it comes to mental health issues, it rarely costs actual dollars. Moving shifts around, swapping a duty here and there, or giving 'em a week of days instead of nights can be all that's needed. For more on this, get in touch with NAMI, South Eastern Minnesota.