What to do when an employee discloses mental health issues?

Here, Andrew Kinder, Chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (www.eapa.org.uk) takes a look at the positive steps managers can take to ensure that those disclosing mental health issues to their employer receive the appropriate support and information.

The first thing that you need to remember as a manager in this situation is not to panic and to remember that this situation isn’t about you. The reality is that your employee isn’t expecting you to instantly solve the situation that they are experiencing – they are, more than likely, simply asking for your support and understanding and for you to help them make adjustments in the workplace that can help them to address and overcome the issues that they’re facing.

To talk with another person, especially your boss, about mental health issues requires an enormous amount of courage that you, as their manager, need to acknowledge and recognise. Reassure your colleague that you have heard and understand what they are saying to you, take the opportunity to clarify anything that you’re not sure about and try to be non-judgemental in the tone and language that you use.

Confirm with the employee that their disclosure will be treated in confidence – this will help to reassure them that they have made the ‘right’ decision in coming to talk with you – and start to build a positive path forward by discussing how you can help them as their line manager.

To build this pathway, make arrangements to talk with your employee again about the issue(s) they’re facing and take the opportunity to make the meeting informal. This will help to manage their expectations and give them the important reassurance they may need to sit down and to talk with you again about this.

When it comes to the practicalities of them, give proper consideration about where you meet. You need to ensure that you can find a quiet, private space where your conversation can’t be overheard and that it is somewhere that the employee feels comfortable.

In preparing to talk with your team member it is often important to research and think about the type of support that may already be in place and available from the organisation to support the employee. This might be in the form of an employee assistance programme (EAP) or occupational health services that the employee can contact directly or which you can refer them to.

Your EAP, if there is one in place, may also be able to give you advice as a line manager about how to effectively support the individual in the workplace. If you are unsure, your HR department may be able to point you in the right direction of where to find these resources.

The best way that you can support the employee clearly depends on the details of the specific mental health issues that they’re facing. There is a huge spectrum of mental health conditions, ranging from serious and enduring conditions which are long term in nature such as bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia to shorter term issues that can include grief following a bereavement or stress and anxiety caused by factors such as debt.

The ‘right’ solution for the employee depends on the severity of the condition but, for you as an employer, it is important to focus on the relationship between the employee’s mental health issues and the workplace. Are there changes or adjustments that you can make to their workload, reporting line, targets or working hours, for example?

You should try to avoid jumping to conclusions about how you can help them, instead work with them directly to see if they can identify some solutions. Also remember that although you may be leading the process of discussing positive changes that can be made it remains a two-way process and that both parties, the employer and the employee, need to be on-board and that both have a responsibility for its success.

Aside from the support that you are able to offer to the employee in question, you do also need to take into account the needs of the wider organisation, HR policies and the impact of any adjustments on teams and colleagues, as well as your customers. Whilst you are focused on helping one employee, failing to consider factors like this could contribute to stress or anxiety amongst other team members. This is why it is important to consider carefully what is reasonable to put into place taking into account all these factors.

Naturally, being made aware of an employee’s mental health conditions brings this type of issue to the top of a manager’s agenda so if it does happen, it might be time to think about whether you need to find out more about the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety or other symptoms of declining mental health that might be prevalent in your workplace. Are there ways that you can spot the signs that members of your team aren’t coping? If there are, what positive changes can you make to help employees before these issues escalate?