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Workplace Mental Health: Tips for Supporting Employees

With mental illness on the rise, it's important for employees to reach out and help their peers and team members.

The national dialogue surrounding mental illness has been slowly changing, but there’s still a long way to go. Stigma surrounds everything from depression to PTSD, and it can make it harder for the 450 million people worldwide who grapple with mental illness to get treatment to make their lives easier—in fact, about 60% of people do not receive treatment for mental illness.

As a small business owner, you might be concerned about the impact mental illness could have on your company. Small businesses often don’t have the bandwidth to accommodate for extensive time off, and can have a hard time functioning if employees aren’t able to reliably report and be ready to work.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with mental illness by requiring that business owners offer “reasonable accommodation” for employees, which is defined by a number of guidelines businesses must follow. Since 1 in 5 adults each year experiences mental illness of some kind, chances are you will hire at least a few employees with a mental illness at some point. So how do you cope with the issue? How can you support your employees while ensuring you don’t compromise your business’s needs?

Understand and Fight Back Against Stereotypes

Many people with mental illness aren’t affected by it on an ongoing basis. It may be seasonal, situational, or simply comes and goes. Some people use medication that can keep symptoms at bay most of the time. It’s a myth that mental illness always makes people unstable or unproductive.

Set aside any cultural stereotypes of mental illness and focus on your employee’s individual situation. As a small business owner, you probably have a close relationship with them. If you find your judgement being clouded by stereotype, think about the individual you’re working with as the person you know them to be, not “someone with a mental illness”.

Don’t Attempt to Treat

It’s tempting to try to help someone with depression or anxiety yourself, but you could be doing more harm than good if you try to counsel them. Don’t attempt to “treat” your employees’ mental illness—it’s not your place, and you’re almost certainly not qualified. If your employee is struggling, offer to help them find resources for treatment and lend whatever support you can without trying to treat the problem yourself.

Ask What You Can Do

Assuming what your employees need is easy, but you very well could be wrong. To find out what they actually need, ask them! Sometimes, the accommodations can be very simple. The Department of Labor offers a long list of suggestions for how employers can help accommodate for employees with mental illness. These can include everything from shifting around duties and responsibilities or allowing employees to work while listening to music on noise-cancelling headphones. There are lots of ways you can make the work environment more hospitable without affecting business performance—you just have to ask and get creative.

Get Flexible

Many people with mental illness can’t predict when they’ll need accommodation. They may need to take a personal day here and there, or may even need to take a leave of absence. Getting used to flexible work arrangements, if that is a possibility for your business, can help. Allowing employees to work from home, leave early, or work a flexible schedule can help employees manage their mental illness and their duties without having to take time off.

Redefine Success

Sometimes, evaluation methods can cause stress and tension for employees with mental illness. Not everyone can demonstrate their success in the same way, as we’ve seen from the failings of traditional standardized tests. If you need your employees to measure or demonstrate their success, see if there are multiple ways they can do this, in order to get a clear picture of how everyone is actually doing without causing tension or anxiety.

Ensure Health Plans Offer Resources

Because mental illness is so common, it’s important to make sure your employees have professional mental health resources available. If you offer a health plan, make sure it covers counseling, addiction, and other treatment options. That way, your team can get the help they need when they need it, without having to tell everyone at work about it.

Be Open and Encourage Communication

The unique challenge of mental illness in the workplace is that many people who struggle with it do so silently. As an employer, you may not even be aware that some of your employees are having difficulty managing their mental illness. Because of the stigma, many people are afraid to speak up, worried they’ll be judged, penalized, or even fired. Creating an open and communicative environment won’t necessarily encourage everyone to open up—but it could help some of your employees be happier and more productive by allowing them to get the support they need. 

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