Consider this scenario: Your co-worker “Pat” has started arriving late to work, struggles to get organized, looks exhausted and anxious, is having trouble with deadlines and decision making, and has withdrawn from having lunches and stopped working out or exercising. Because Pat is also your friend, you are aware that Pat is dealing with personal issues, and you want to help before Pat winds up getting in trouble (or even more trouble) at work.
It is at this point uncertainty can occur – how to balance concern for Pat while respecting Pat’s privacy. What if you find out Pat is dealing with anxiety, depression and/or self-medicating in an unhealthy way? This presents the awkward possibility of (a) knowing personal information about Pat that explains behavior and work performance issues but (b) wanting to keep Pat’s trust and friendship while (c) also harboring a fear that your employer might fault you for not alerting them to Pat’s condition, so someone could intervene to help.
The National Institute of Health estimates that at least 40 million adults 18 and over suffer from some degree of an anxiety disorder, but only about a third of those adults ever receive any treatment. Depression is the leading cause of disability in adults worldwide. Many adults at some point in their lives, find themselves somewhere on the very broad spectrum of being stressed out and overwhelmed– which can range from simply being tired, irritated, sad or cranky, to being completely overwhelmed and unable to cope. Based on statistics alone, you can be pretty certain at least some of your co-workers fall into these categories to varying degrees.
While it is very normal to get “stressed out” at work, not everyone responds to stress in the same way. Employees who are already dealing personal stressors and/or have underlying emotional/mental health issues may find themselves having difficulty coping. It is not at all unusual that other employees are the first people to realize that one of their co-workers is having some trouble, since employees tend to form close friendships at work. This may cause them to face uncertainty over what to do and how to help.
While many employers train managers and supervisors on ways to recognize and approach employees who are struggling at work, a fellow employee may not necessarily know what to do or how to reach out to another employee friend at work. Complicating this scenario is the fact that because most of us spend the vast majority of our time at work, we often form close friendships with our co-workers. While we really do want to help, we also don’t want to risk unintentionally broadcasting a friend’s personal problems around the office.
What’s an Employee to Do?
Everyone’s experiences with personal challenges and emotional health issues are different. Just because someone appears to be physically and mentally struggling does not mean they have an anxiety or depression issue or are overwhelmed. Conversely, many people who have diagnosed anxiety and/or depression disorders function just fine under incredibly stressful circumstances.
The solution starts at the top. Employers need to create a culture that fosters trust, builds relationships, and reacts with openness and integrity. They should make it clear that employee emotional and mental health is important to them and will be treated in the same way as a physical health issue: with empathy, assistance and support. Allowing these types of emotional and mental health issues to be openly discussed and encouraging employees to communicate on such issues will greatly help to normalize dialogue and interactions when issues arise. Employers should make the workplace a safe and supportive space for employees to discuss these emotional and mental health issues with the employer, and also with each other.
Where Do I Start?
Start with common sense and kindness, the same as you would with any friend. Find a place and time where the person can feel comfortable and the discussion will be private, which may not be at work. Don’t assume anything about what’s going on or whether your co-worker has a condition – it can be difficult enough for people to discuss their situation and/or condition without having to worry about what others may be thinking about them.
Make sure they know you will respect their confidentiality and will only share information if they want it to be shared. Encourage them to talk and if they do not feel like having a discussion right then, let them know you care and are there when they are ready.
Most important do not judge them. Be ready to listen, respond as appropriate but be flexible, and help them develop a plan to move forward. Encourage them to seek advice and support – sometimes just having an outlet at work can be immensely relieving for someone who is struggling. Support can also include encouraging them to see a doctor, speak with a counselor, or meeting with someone from their religious organization if appropriate.
If work performance is an issue (i.e. they are at risk of discipline or termination) it is probably a good idea to review your employee handbook and discuss a visit to HR and/or the Office Manager.
Under both Federal and California law, employees who are dealing with mental and emotional health issues are normally entitled to time off and work place accommodations to assist them in dealing with these challenges. HR departments and office managers are usually trained (or should be) to assist employees who come to them with these types of emotional and/or mental health conditions in order to quickly assist in helping get resources for the employee.
Such accommodations can include time off for treatment, schedule changes, flexible hours, working from home, revisions to job duties and tasking, changes in work space, noise quieting devices, shift splits, and the like. Outside companies are also available to assist in developing accommodation options for employees facing emotional and mental health challenges, in coordination with treating professionals and HR.
Companies that have happy, healthy, strongly motivated employees perform better, have less turnover, and enjoy much greater productivity. Which makes it all the more important that employers take the lead in normalizing discussions on emotional and mental health care issues. This starts with making sure employees know that their workplace will stand by them if they come to the employer for help.