Managing employees with mental health issues


Nearly 20% of employees across all industries report suffering from symptoms caused by mental health disorders. The severity and duration of the symptoms can vary. Many millions of people cope with mental illness through a variety of treatment and counseling support, and their coworkers would never know about their challenges. Other employees may struggle with their symptoms and these struggles can manifest in unstable behavior or breakdowns to occur during work hours.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers have an obligation not to discriminate against people with disabilities, or with perceived disabilities. Mental illness can constitute just such a disability.

To do your best to help struggling employees, to comply with the laws in this area, and to keep your workforce safe and productive, we recommend the following four pieces of advice:

Conduct Clarification

Remember that your focus as the employer must always be about conduct – and not “condition.” It is the person’s behavior at work that is your concern. A clear, unbiased collection of conduct rules for the workplace helps set the tone for interactions with all of your employees. The document should outline expected behavior and the potential repercussions for failing to follow the guidelines. The conduct rules may outline proper communication channels for disputes to keep frustration levels low and reduce the chance of angry outbursts. By providing the conduct rules to everyone in your workplace, you avoid unlawfully singling out employees who may be suffering from a health condition that causes problem behaviors.

Incident Control

If any employee exhibits improper behavior on the job, you should promptly respond to the incident to stop the behavior and return the workplace to normal as quickly as possible. It is always a best practice to discuss the details of any workplace incident in private and only with those who have a need to know. Employees should not be singled out in front of the group. If you have concerns that an employee may be potentially unstable, always take steps to protect yourself and others. This can include having another person present, and/or asking security officers to stand by to assist if necessary.

Confidential Counseling

Many companies offer Employee Assistance Programs (or “EAPs”) to provide help to employees who may need counseling for mental health concerns. If your company has such a program, it is a compassionate and best practice to confidentially offer this to an employee who seems to be struggling. The counseling services should always remain confidential and separate from the employee’s workplace record. If employees cannot seek mental health care on their own, due to personal or financial reasons, your counseling resources can help get them back on track to total wellness.

Accommodate – but if that fails and problem behaviors continue, Consider Dismissal

If an employee suffers from a medical or psychological condition that meets the definition of “a disability,” employers must generally provide reasonable accommodations to the employee to remain in the job. Beyond offering counseling, you may need to provide time off, alter work hours, increase structure, allow support animal usage or otherwise adjust the employee’s work environment to give that individual the accommodation they need to perform their job.

If your employee continues to break the rules of conduct, you may have to compassionately dismiss that individual from the workplace. Most of the time, this follows the same procedures and rules of any involuntary termination. It requires you to look at past circumstances to make sure that you are treating employees consistently. If you have concerns about an individual’s volatility, seek out help in making sure that the process proceeds smoothly and safely for all involved.

There is a lot of misconception in our culture about mental illness. While we have made strides in our understanding of the physiological nature of mental health disorders, there is still a long way to go. Make sure your workplace approaches these kinds of situations with knowledge and consistency, in accord with the laws and regulations, and with a focus of compassion for your employees.