Career Q&A: Dealing with mental health issues in the workplace

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I am a mid-level manager who has been working in the nonprofit sector for 15 years. Although I am not officially trained in human resource management, I have had a fairly positive experience managing the people in my teams over the years. However, about six months ago, a team member disclosed a history of depression and anxiety to the whole team. Over the last few months, this person’s job performance has been well below what is needed and acceptable in most areas of their responsibilities. I am not sure if this is a result of the reoccurrence of the mental health issue or whether there are genuine performance issues that need to be managed. Our organization strives to be inclusive and supportive of staff but we are a small team and one non-performer (regardless of the reason) is impacting the work and stress levels in the team. I am nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing – how should I approach this?

We can understand your dilemma – you want to be respectful and supportive of a staff member who may be struggling but you are also equally accountable to meet your organization’s deliverables and ensuring the rest your team has what they need to do their jobs well.

Unfortunately, rates of people experiencing mental health issues is growing exponentially. The World Health Organization predicts that one in four people will directly experience a mental health condition in their lifetime and states that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. This means mental health is an issue of concern that all of us will need to get more sophisticated at dealing with – at work, at home and in our communities. However, there are some clear steps you can take that will help you come to grips with this situation:

Get informed about mental health and the law. As an employer, your obligations related to your employees are outlined under two federal laws: the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employment Equity Act. However, complaints related to violations of these laws are primarily dealt with through governing provincial bodies, such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission and Ontario Ministry of Labour. These provincial bodies generally have helplines, fact sheets and links to resources – so find out what your obligations are and what support is available in your region.

Mental health conditions are medical conditions, so it is important that you respect the staff member’s right to privacy and confidentiality the same as you would for any other illness. In addition to protecting the employee’s confidentiality, it is also your responsibility to make every possible effort to make reasonable accommodations to the employee’s workload, schedule or environment to facilitate their work and recovery. Familiarize yourself with your organization’s policies on illness and disability – including what support or resources are available to both of you (e.g. an employee assistance program at your own organization or one through an employee’s partner's benefits, etc.). If your organization does not have a policy in place, this might be the opportunity to create one!

Put a plan in place and start taking action. Once you have a clear understanding of your legal responsibilities and any policies your organization has in place, it is time to have a conversation with your employee. Approach your concerns in a sensitive manner, focused on the perspective of performance and with curiosity about what factors might be impeding performance. In your case, your employee has already disclosed a past history of mental illness, but don’t assume this is the cause of the current performance issues unless they confirm this to you! Ensure the tone of the conversation is non-judgmental but clear – providing factual examples of missed performance expectations and any relevant behavior that has been witnessed. As with any performance issue, solving it is a collaborative process with your employee. If a medical condition has been disclosed, make a plan together to help mitigate any performance barriers and accommodate the employee’s needs. Have regular, scheduled check-ins to assess if the plan is working for both of you and make any adjustments as necessary. Document and share these agreements with the employee and ensure they are clear on what is expected of them, the accommodations agreed on, any other support available to them and how this issue will be followed up on. It is also important to discuss if and how any information about the plan will be shared with other team members – your employee has sole discretion over this decision and you need to follow their lead. Once these options have been exhausted then, and only then, is it appropriate to start to consider disciplinary action or termination.

Get support for yourself and your organization. In Canada, www.mentalhealthworks.ca is a nonprofit organization, affiliated with the Canadian Mental Health Association, dedicated to providing resources, training and support to employers and employees on handling mental health issues.

Start a dialogue within your workplace. Regardless of whether or not your organization is grappling with employees with mental health issues, it might be a good idea to start having these discussions within your organization to not only raise awareness and de-stigmatize the issue in your workplace but also get your employees' ideas on what accommodations and support the organization could provide to contribute to the overall wellness of its people in the first place.

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

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