Skip to main content

How to Deal With a Mentally Ill Coworker

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

Working with a mentally ill colleague may be challenging, but you should resist the urge to disparage him or her for his illness—this article will show you how to support without enabling.

Working with a mentally ill colleague may be challenging, but you should resist the urge to disparage him or her for his illness—this article will show you how to support without enabling.

Look around the office. Chances are, someone you work with is mentally ill. Yet, they may be suffering in silence because mental illness is still deeply stigmatized.

Mental illness refers to biologically-based conditions that interfere with a person's thoughts, feelings, moods, social interaction, and ability to function.1

This article will take a look at mental illness in the workplace and how you can better interact with and support your fellow coworkers.

Statistics About Mental Illness

Here are facts you may not realize:

  • One in five American adults struggles with a mental disorder during any given year.2
  • Among the most common disorders are anxiety disorders. Almost 29% of American adults are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Examples include phobias, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.3
  • Mental illness is the leading cause of workplace absenteeism.4
  • It is also the leading cause of disability in the United States for people 15 to 44 years old.5
  • By 2020, major depression (the "common cold" of mental health) is predicted to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide.6

Thus, given that you are probably already working with someone who is mentally ill, what is the best way to handle the situation?

Coworkers may have family, legal, financial, or health concerns that overwhelm their ability to cope. You just never know the baggage they're carrying.

Coworkers may have family, legal, financial, or health concerns that overwhelm their ability to cope. You just never know the baggage they're carrying.

Behaviors That Could Signal a Mental Health Problem

If a coworker exhibits difficult behavior on the job, it may signal that something deeper is going on in their lives.

According to Mental Health America, the following behaviors could indicate an employee is struggling with mental health issues:

  • missed deadlines
  • slow pace of work
  • frequent absences and lateness
  • unexplained displays of hostility and irritability
  • difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • appearing withdrawn or devoid of emotion
  • frequent forgetting of instructions and procedures
  • overworking
  • expressing difficulty with changes in work routines7

"There is no deeper wound than humiliation. The momentary glory we may feel in humiliating someone is short-lived compared to the damage we cause.”

— Rabbi Irwin Katsof

Don't Assume, Diagnose, or Label

Just because someone displays these symptoms, however, does not necessarily mean they are mentally ill.

If you've noticed a negative pattern of changes in a coworker's behavior, or if you see that their performance or attitude has slipped significantly, do not assume that mental illness is in play. You are likely unqualified to render a diagnosis. Plus, given the stigma of mental illness, such labels often serve to alienate others.

The line between employees' work and personal lives has blurred. This additional stress may aggravate existing mental illness.

The line between employees' work and personal lives has blurred. This additional stress may aggravate existing mental illness.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Toughnickel

Life Stressors Can Also Cause Changes in Behavior

Negative changes in behavior could indicate that the employee is facing serious life stressors rather than mental illness. For example, financial or marital strain, caring for a family member with a serious illness, or coping with one's own recent medical diagnosis could each cause a person to become distracted and sullen.

Consider the following situation as an example.

I once worked with a woman who was behaving erratically. She was frequently out of the office, was prone to mood swings, and was terribly unproductive. She spent a lot of time on personal phone calls, lashed out at others, and could not be counted on to honor deadlines.

For months, a secret had plagued her, and no one knew it until her secret hit the newspaper. Her husband was under indictment for federal tax evasion charges because he had spent thousands of dollars on high-priced call girls and then mischaracterized his expenses as "business expenses." His problem had come to light when he had been caught in a federal sting operation.

My coworker was suddenly facing divorce, single parenthood, and trouble from the IRS (even though she was an innocent spouse). Her husband was meanwhile facing a federal prison sentence, loss of his business, unwanted fame on the 6 o'clock news, and hefty legal fees. No wonder she had been difficult to work with!

This just goes to show that it's never safe to assume.

Colleagues may have financial, legal, marital, or health concerns that you can only imagine. Their behavior may or may not be rooted in mental illness.

Colleagues may have financial, legal, marital, or health concerns that you can only imagine. Their behavior may or may not be rooted in mental illness.

Express Concern: Describe the Behaviors That Concern You

Regardless of the source of your coworker's trouble, you are in a good position as a colleague to express concern and to encourage them to seek help.

If you are comfortable doing so, talk to your colleague in a private setting. (Alternatively, you may talk to a supervisor about your concerns.)

Express concern rather than requesting to know what is going on. Be authentic and compassionate. Describe the changes you have seen.

By keeping your descriptions behavior-based, you can help reduce your coworker's defensiveness. Also, focus on behaviors that you have personally witnessed or experienced rather than relying on second-hand descriptions.

While some coworkers outwardly exhibit signs of mental illness, others suffer in silence.

While some coworkers outwardly exhibit signs of mental illness, others suffer in silence.

Suggest Resources

Offer to help connect your colleague with resources that can help him or her cope with what is going on in his/her life. For example, many companies provide voluntary, confidential counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

EAPs can help employees and family members who are encountering emotional difficulties, legal or financial troubles, marital difficulties, or problems on the job. Your Human Resources department can provide information on your EAP's benefits and how to access them.

Offer your coworker the EAP number in a non-judgmental way (e.g., "in case you ever need this," or "a lot of people find this helpful"). If your company does not have an EAP, encourage your colleague to reach out to his or her family physician or a psychologist for next steps.

EAP should never be required of an employee except under the advice of counsel. If a person poses an imminent danger to themselves or others, immediately call 911.

You probably have no real clue what's going on in your coworker's life.  Stick with the behaviors you see and be non-judgmental in your description.

You probably have no real clue what's going on in your coworker's life. Stick with the behaviors you see and be non-judgmental in your description.

Encourage Ongoing Self-Care and Responsibility

Once you have provided your coworker with EAP information, it is okay to occasionally follow up regarding how they are doing. However, it is inappropriate to specifically ask whether they have called EAP or sought counseling. That's an invasion of their privacy.

Empower your coworker's self-care by providing support and information, then step out of the way. Allow your colleague to responsibly steer his or her own life.

You can support them without enabling by continuing to include your colleague in group activities and short-circuiting office gossip about their situation. Your colleague should not be marginalized because of the stigma of mental illness.

You can also support a healthier workplace by encouraging all of your coworkers to take occasional 10-minute breaks, lunch breaks (away from the desk), and scheduled vacations to help manage their stress. If your company has a fitness center, a medical clinic, or other health-related resources you might also recommend that your colleague care for himself/herself this way.

They Still Have a Job to Do

Whether mentally ill or not, an employee needs to be able to perform their job. Don't get into the habit of covering or making excuses for your coworker, and don't expect less of someone who has a mental illness.

If your coworker needs to request a workplace accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allow them do it. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, as well as State and local governments, employment agencies and labor organizations.

The ADA requires a covered employer to

provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment" unless doing so would present undue hardship.9

The process of requesting an accommodation involves interaction among the employee, the health care provider, and the employer. Reasonable accommodations for mentally ill employees depend on individual circumstances, but examples could include the following:

  • time off to attend appointments
  • a job coach
  • adjustments to the work location
  • modifications to how work instructions are provided
Even though you notice the problem behaviors, you don't own them.  It's the employee's responsibility to seek help and improve his/her job performance.  You can't do this for them.

Even though you notice the problem behaviors, you don't own them. It's the employee's responsibility to seek help and improve his/her job performance. You can't do this for them.

If Their Behavior Interferes With Your Performance

Sometimes coworkers develop an unacceptable behavior pattern that demand escalation to management.

If you have attempted other solutions and your coworker's behavior now interferes with your job performance or client satisfaction, don't allow the situation to deteriorate before taking action.

Document the following information about the offending behavior:

  • What was the behavior and situation?
  • When did it occur?
  • Who was involved and how?
  • What were the impacts of the behavior on productivity, customer satisfaction, etc.?

Then, present your pattern of data to management. Keep your emotions out of the conversation. Instead, focus on how your coworker's behavior is impacting the team and/or customers.