Monday, August 19, 2013

How Should HR Handle a Mentally Ill Worker?

True story.

I was working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company in the city.

I’d arrived at the office one morning and had barely settled in when a coworker asked whether I’d heard about Steve (not his real name).

“What happened?” I joked, “Did he kill himself?”

My friend paused and gave me a look. Turns out Steve had killed himself. 

Of course, I immediately felt terrible. And not just for making an insensitive joke. See, Steve was a sad person, and while I’d picked up on that, I’d had no idea what to do about it. He was several rungs up the ladder from me, and we weren’t close. Still, our limited interactions had been positive. He was a nice guy.

However, years passed, and I’d all but forgotten about Steve until today when I read "Addressing Suicide in the Workplace."

The article discusses how HR folks can help prevent a vulnerable worker from hurting himself.

Johnny Lee, founding director of Peace@Work, which has the mission of preventing workplace violence, is quoted in the article as saying, “We need to have people realize it’s OK [to talk about mental illness] … “It’s fine to ask … if you think someone’s hurting themselves.”

It’s a good reminder. Sensitivity to the prohibitions of the ADA would stop many an HR pro from approaching an employee, no matter how troubling his behavior, but really, it’s okay. And if the situation is handled properly, it’ll be more than okay.

I’ve found that just about every sticky employee relations issue can be handled well if you start and end with work. Talking about work keeps you on solid ground, so stay there by speaking with the employee about what changes you’ve noticed in her performance, whether lateness, or increased absences, or missed deadlines, or something else. (The article mentions weight loss or a “sleep-deprived appearance,” but personally I wouldn’t go there first. My experience is, when something serious is going on in a person’s life, performance will tell.)

I also highly recommend working in tandem with an employee assistance program (EAP), if at all possible. EAP counselors have seen just about everything and can be invaluable sources of information. And, whether you’re recommending an employee to the EAP or issuing a formal referral, your EAP account manager can walk you through the process. I’ve used PENN Behavioral Health with no complaints. And, as benefits go, monthly fees are quite reasonable.

Most of us will never work with someone who later commits suicide, and that’s a really good thing.

However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health in any given year 26.2% of adult Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. That’s greater than one in four, so odds are, if you practice HR long enough, you will face these issues. They’re tough, to be sure, but you can handle it, and you must.