Employee Mental Health

More than just a hot topic

The Olympics are over, but the impact of Simone Biles’ decision to sit out part of the competition generated more coverage than if she’d won gold medals in every event. The fact that her reason for sidelining herself was, primarily, her own mental health and well-being stirred mixed reactions—from disbelief and ridicule to support and applause.

How are your people doing?

You no doubt keep close tabs on the sounds coming from the equipment on your production floor. You watch supply levels and reorder as needed. You consider different strategies for marketing your business. You monitor cash flow and expenses.

How good are you at keeping a finger on the pulse of your employees’ mental health? If the whole idea makes you squeamish, you need to take a step back and reconsider it.

Your workforce is the most important component of your company. You can have the best equipment, all the customers you can handle and lots of cash on hand, but without people to run the machines, greet the customers and handle the work, you’re dead in the water. Every one of those employees is a human being with very real personal challenges in their lives and, sometimes, they struggle mentally to keep it all together.

Warning signs of trouble

Tim is the best presser you’ve ever had. His work is impeccable, he rarely has to touch up anything, and he maintains his equipment in top condition. But lately, his productivity has sagged. He burned himself last week. He was late coming in today, and looked like he’d slept in his clothes. You told him about something that needed to be done and he promptly forgot it. When you pointed it out, he uncharacteristically shouted, “I can’t do everything around here!” and turned his back on you.

You don’t want to lose such a valuable employee, but you’re seriously considering looking for a replacement.

Tim is actually exhibiting many of the warning signs of someone struggling with mental health issues. Rather than replacing him, you can take steps to help him, instead.

Mental Health affects about one person in six

If there are six of you in a room, at least one of you is probably having mental health difficulties. This means that what is going on in one’s mind is affecting his or her behavior, emotions and thinking. It doesn’t mean they’re “going crazy,” just that they’ve have gotten into a mental state where attention span, mood control and the ability to process everyday stresses is becoming increasingly impossible.

As illustrated in Tim’s story, there are warning signs that you can pick up on fairly quickly to know that someone is having a tough time. Some of them include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty completing tasks that usually come easily
  • Decrease in productivity
  • Mood swings and emotional outbursts that are out of character
  • Worry and outright fear of daily things, people, or losing one’s job
  • Changes in eating, sleeping and daily hygiene
  • Pulling back from social situations, isolating one’s self
  • Increased use of alcohol, or turning to drugs and other addictive behaviors

Tim is a star example of many of these, and is probably experiencing others—you just don’t know it because you’re not with him 24 hours a day. Unless there is a change in the pattern he’s fallen into, it’s possible you’ll lose your best presser. And he’s having an impact on every other employee around him.

What can you do?

Most people are at a loss when it comes to discussing another person’s mental well-being, especially in the workplace. It’s not so easy to pin down as a simple behavioral issue. You can’t just retrain someone, as you can when they are using equipment incorrectly. You don’t want to make them more upset than they already are, either.

People struggling with mental health concerns are often emotional. That is frightening to an employer. “I don’t want him/her crying in my office! I won’t know what to say!”

But mental health has a huge impact on what goes on in your company; you can’t ignore it. So approach it with a plan, as you would any other issue.

  • Make a list of the cues you’ve picked up that demonstrate a potential mental health crisis brewing. Make the list objective and clear, not emotional or accusatory. (Late on Tuesday, had to redo seven shirts, instead of Can’t get here on time, ruining garments, doing a lousy job.) Keep in mind you may need to show this list to the employee, so think about how they will feel seeing it in black and white.
  • Gather resources. If your employee were suffering from a physical ailment, you’d no doubt get information on where he or she could go for treatment, suggest a doctor who had been helpful to you, or ask if there was a physical accommodation you could make to enable them to work better. Mental health is the same. There are resources. You should have some on hand.
  • Invite the employee to a quiet place—an office, an empty break room, etc.—in a nonthreatening way. Don’t schedule it for a point in the future, do it immediately. Saying, “I need to talk to you later. Come to my office after work,” when it’s the middle of the day will only give the employee more to worry about.
  • Think about what you would need were you in a similar position. This is a potentially fragile person, someone who is hurting. One thing they need in abundance is reassurance. Compliment him or her sincerely on the job they normally do. Give specific examples of when they helped out above and beyond normal duties, and what it meant to you. Express your respect for him or her.
  • Transition into discussing what might be wrong. “I have noticed a few things that make me think you might be struggling right now, and I want to help.” Gently go through the items on the list you made. Then ask what is bothering the employee. Then stop talking. Let him or her talk as long as they need to. Venting, sharing, unloading are key to beginning the process of mental recovery.

  • Ask if the employee needs some time off. Yes, it will be a hardship for you, but what is more important—your profits or the human being in front of you? Make whatever accommodation you can. Maybe part time is helpful. Maybe a break. Maybe referring the employee to counseling will be enough. Whatever is needed, showing you care is the biggest boost you can give. To know that someone in authority is not only observing, but willing to intervene, is like balm to the nerves of someone in pain.

What you can’t do

You aren’t a qualified counselor. You aren’t trained in mental health issues. But you are a person and you are a boss. You have the power to make your employees happy or frustrated. You can make work a drudgery or something meaningful. You can’t wave a magic wand and fix people, but you can make sure that your company is compassionate and ready to help.

Note: If you feel you are in over your head, and the employee might potentially harm himself/herself or others, contact community resources and get immediate assistance.

Once you’ve talked with the employee who exhibits concerning behaviors, you have two other responsibilities.

  1. Keep it to yourself. This is crucial for maintaining trust with your employee, and there are legal considerations about discussing it with anyone else.
  2. Keep the door open. Your employee will need ongoing help in this situation. It’s not a one-discussion-and-done event. Be prepared to talk further, to look for more resources, to let the employee feel your support and concern.

As an employer you have lots of responsibilities. Mental health observation and intervention isn’t just one more of them, it’s a vital one. Putting it on your radar is the first step toward a healthier and happier workplace.

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