Supporting employees with mental illness | CourageousHR
Skip to content

Mental health is an important issue for everyone, but for people who live with a mental illness day-to-day work can sometimes be challenging. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 44.7 million U.S. adults live with a mental illness, which is one in five. This means that most companies have employees living with a chronic condition that impacts their mental well-being. It is important that employers and HR departments support these workers and help them be their best on the job.

Accommodations for Treatment

Mental illness is often invisible. It doesn’t always show clear signs, like when someone has a cold or the flu. And for those who do not struggle with mental illness it can be difficult to understand what an individual is going through and what kinds of accommodations and treatment they need. HR departments must be aware that these workers need accommodations, just like those with physical disabilities or illnesses do.

For instance, an employee with major depressive disorder may have a regular therapy session that is outside of working hours. But there may be a period in which she has a particularly severe episode and needs to see her therapist during the day. These kinds of crises should be treated with respect and discretion so that the worker can get the help she needs in a timely manner.

Recognizing that Treatment for Mental Illness Can Cause More Issues

Treatment for mental illness often includes medications, and as with medicines for physical conditions these can cause side effects that may affect work performance. HR professionals need to be educated and aware of these issues so that they can be ruled out as a cause for any perceived negative aspects of performance before taking disciplinary actions.

As an example, Abilify is a medication used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It can cause uncomfortable physical side effects, which may make a person appear to be ill. In some people it can also trigger compulsive behaviors, especially gambling. This can lead to uncharacteristic behaviors in an employee that would be treated harshly if employers and HR were not aware of the individual’s mental health status and treatment issues. The effect is so serious and severe that it has actually led to lawsuits by patients who feel they were not adequately warned about it and that it cost them a lot of money.

Offering Employee Assistance Programs

For a worker who is struggling employers have the option to offer an employee assistance program or EAP. This is an intervention that helps individuals who are struggling at work identify the underlying causes and find ways to cope with them. An EAP may include access to a nurse or mental health professional, legal assistance and referrals, and a range of social services.

Educating Everyone about Mental Illness

Working in an environment in which others understand mental illness and in which there is less stigma can make every day easier for someone who struggles with mental health. The HR department can facilitate positive changes by educating everyone. Bringing in a mental health professional for a seminar or professional development day, for instance, can provide greater awareness, and this reduces stigma.

Also useful for everyone is to provide programs for good mental hygiene that promote daily practices that help anyone improve or maintain mental health. This may include learning about mindfulness, practicing healthy coping strategies for stress, focusing on work-life balance, or even yoga.

Workers who live with mental illness may never show their struggle on the job, but many will see their illness impact their work and it is crucial that HR and employers do what they can to support those individuals. Providing education, support, and accommodations while also maintaining worker privacy makes the entire workplace better and more productive