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How to manage employees’ mental health

Celéste Olivier

When it comes to employee management and mental health in the workplace, managers often prefer the proverbial 'head-in-the-sand' approach. As mental illness is still largely feared and misunderstood, it seems easier to adopt the - blatantly incorrect - behaviour of ignoring it in the hope it will go away. So how should you, as a manager, perform your employee management responsibilities with regard to your employees' mental health?

Mental illness is a health issue that can significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts. This is a general term that refers to a group of illnesses including, but not limited to:

  • Mood disorders (such as depression and bipolar disorder),
  • Anxiety disorders, and
  • Psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia).

Research shows that 16.5% of South Africans suffer from common mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. So no matter which industry you find yourself in, there is a fairly good chance that during your employee management career you'll have an employee suffering from a mental illness.

What are your employee management responsibilities towards employees with depression?

As a manager, you're expected to monitor absenteeism in your team, address poor work quality and manage productivity levels among the employees in your team. Although it isn't your job to diagnose or provide counselling, by having a better understanding of mental health you'll be able to support an employee if their work performance is impacted by a mental health challenge.

Unfortunately, given a great deal of negative stigma surrounding mental illness, an employee may be reluctant to discuss their condition with you. To get around this, pay attention to employees' workplace behaviour as this may indicate if they could be struggling with a mental health issue. These behaviours could include:

  • Inability to concentrate,
  • Regularly arriving at work late,
  • Appearing tired,
  • Increased errors in work,
  • Being unusually tearful or emotional,
  • Getting angry easily,
  • Difficulty in making decisions,
  • Decreased productivity,
  • Prone to accidents,
  • Decline in dependability,
  • Increased sick days, and
  • Lack of enthusiasm.

As a manager, it's your responsibility to take action if you notice behavioural or performance issues in the employees you manage. You're in a unique position to assist the employee with much-needed support and access to professional help, and try to accommodate them within the workplace.

Meet with the employee privately

In most cases, meeting with the employee privately to talk about your concerns would have the best results. Here are three steps that will assist you with this process:

Step#1: Prepare for the meeting

Before you meet with the employee, find out what resources your organisation can offer him. For example, is there an employee assistance programme (EAP) and how accommodating can you be in terms of company policies?

Step#2: Talk to the employee

When you talk to the employee, it's important to:

  • Approach your concern as a workplace performance issue,
  • Raise the possibility of accommodating him, if necessary, and
  • Provide access to the EAP.

During the discussion, DON'T:

  • Make broad accusations, or
  • Try to name the underlying issue if you suspect a mental health condition.

Step#3: Follow up with the employee

You need to realise that when broaching this subject with your employee, you'll be required to follow up and provide continued support. If your organisation has an EAP in place, you can then refer the employee here.

Dealing with mental health in the workplace can become overwhelming for a manager. It's important to appreciate that an employee with mental illness can be a productive team member if you support them sufficiently.

Celéste Olivier is the EAP manager at Kaelo Consulting. She has a BA in social work from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in occupational social work from the University of the Witwatersrand.