How to Deal With a Mentally Ill Coworker
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?
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- appearing withdrawn or devoid of emotion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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Have a specific request in mind (e.g., require the coworker to honor deadlines), and realize that your supervisor already may be struggling with how to effectively manage your colleague's performance difficulties. Don't add to the conflict by considering the disagreement with your colleague personal.
Try to seek a common ground in dealing with a coworker who may be working through mental or interpersonal issues. Today it's your colleague, but tomorrow it could be you who needs the extra understanding.
If your coworker entrusts you with personal information, refrain from repeating it. Avoid the temptation to treat it as a bit of juicy gossip. Gossip often shames and embarrasses the subject, but it also speaks volumes about those who spread it. If tempted to gossip, stop first and ask yourself why you would want to repeat the information. If it isn't out of kindness—out of a spirit of helping—then it's best to keep the information to yourself.
Words Can Be Weapons
Watch your language around the office.
Everyday speech is filled with words and phrases that are rude and mocking of those who suffer from mental disorders.
Whether you are describing a "crazy" idea or joking that someone is "not playing with a full deck," be aware that phrases that could malign entire groups of people are not appropriate for a professional environment. Certainly, you don't want your behavior to become an issue in an HR investigation. Be aware that workers with mental illness do file complaints of disability harassment because of inappropriate language that is commonly used against them in the workplace.
Even if you do not believe you work with someone with a mental illness, they could have family members who are mentally ill. Be exact in your wording so that you mean what you say and say what you mean.
Remember, too, that mental illness is a treatable medical condition, not a defect in character or willpower.
Have you ever worked with a person with a mental illness?
Mental Disorders at Work
Symptoms of some mental disorders might manifest themselves differently at work than in other situations.8
Depression may take the following forms in the workplace: nervousness, irritability, frequent complaints about minor physical ailments, lack of engagements, slow productivity, and fatigue.
Depressed employees are estimated to lose the equivalent of 27 days from work due to illness and lost productivity. People with depression are more likely to frequently change jobs.
About 1% of American adults have bipolar disorder. The disorder typically involves cycling between depressive phases and manic, or elevated, phases.
During a manic phase, colleagues may notice the person's self-aggrandizements, rule breaking, disruptiveness, and their boundless energy.
Bipolar employees are estimated to miss 28 days from work due to illness and absences, with an additional 35 days in lost productivity.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects approximately 3.5% of employees.
Symptoms include problems managing workload and deadlines, disorganization, difficulty with following instructions, and conflicts with co-workers.
Employees with ADHD lose an estimated 22 days from work. In addition, they are
- 18 more times more likely to receive discipline,
- two to four times more likely to be fired, and
- likely to earn only 60-80% of the pay that their colleagues without ADHD do.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will make me go in the corner and cry by myself for hours."— Eric Idle, Comedian
Famous Mentally Ill People Throughout History: A Quizview quiz statistics
1 NAMI. (2018). Mental Health Conditions | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions.
2 "NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness | Mental Health By the Numbers." NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness | NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed August 6, 2016. http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers.
3 National Institute of Mental Health. "NIMH · Half of Adults With Anxiety Disorders Had Psychiatric Diagnoses in Youth." NIMH · Home. Last modified February 7, 2007. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml.
4 McDonohough, Brian. "Leading Cause Of Absenteeism." CBS Philly. Last modified October 1, 2012. http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/10/01/leading-cause-of-absenteeism/.
5 Mental Health America. "Ranking America's Mental Health: An Analysis of Depression Across the States: Mental Health America." Welcome: Mental Health America. Accessed June 7, 2013. http://www.nmha.org/go/state-ranking.
6 World Health Organization. Promoting Mental Health: Concepts, Emerging Evidence, Pratice. France: World Health Organization, 2004. http://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/en/promoting_mhh.pdf.
7 Mental Health America. "What to Do When You Think an Employee May Need Mental Health Help: Mental Health America." Welcome: Mental Health America. Accessed June 7, 2013. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/employee-may-need-mental-health-help.
8Harvard University. "Mental Health Problems in the Workplace." Health Information and Medical Information - Harvard Health Publications. Accessed June 7, 2013. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2010/February/mental-health-problems-in-the-workplace.
9United States Department of Justice. "Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act." ADA.gov homepage. Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www.ada.gov/.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
If an employee tells you they are mentally ill, what should you say?
While your initial inclination might be to respond just as if they had shared that they had a physical ailment, keep in mind that a lot depends on 1) the employee's rationale for divulging such sensitive information and 2) the nature and quality of your relationship with the coworker.
If you are close coworkers and know a lot about one another's lives and families, then it may seem a natural extension of an existing, trusting relationship to reveal that detail. Hold it in the same trusted confidence that you would any other medical information. Don't repeat it and don't get nosey about it. They may be sharing the information more out of friendship than anything else. Perhaps they're not wanting you to specifically SAY anything but rather listen and empathize. Maybe they're trying to provide an explanation for a behavior that you find confusing. Listen.
There are others in the workforce, however, who tend to share their personal information inappropriately. In these situations, there's no obvious point in why these employees are divulging this information. For example, they may overshare by telling people they barely know WAY too much information about themselves. You can usually spot these folks by their verbal diarrhea. (Resist the temptation to return the "favor" of sharing your own deeply personal information.)
If coworkers' personal and medical information is not something you wish to know (unless it impacts the work environment and specifically your job), then you can say something benign to shut down additional sharing. For example, "That doesn't change how I see you as a coworker." Then change the topic or remove yourself from the scene.
There is another circumstance, however, in which an employee may self-identify as mentally ill because they are requesting an accommodation for a disability. Keep in mind that an employee is NOT required to use certain words when requesting an accommodation.
If you serve in a leadership capacity and the coworker confides his/her mental illness, it's important to clarify whether they are requesting an accommodation for a disability (and if so, what your company's procedures are for addressing this request). Ask whether they are making an accommodation request or simply sharing information about themselves. You can do this in a caring and sincere way. Don't pry into the medical information but instead simply inquire what accommodation, if any, they are requesting. Then immediately contact HR for assistance, if it's an accommodation request. (Again, this is for people in leadership roles.) Examples of accommodation requests include: wanting to work a modified schedule because of a recently diagnosed mood disorder, requesting an emotional support animal to accompany one to work because of anxiety and panic attacks, or relocating one's cubicle to an area with less traffic and noise.
We spend about a third of our lives at work, so it's natural to learn sensitive information about one another. While sometimes it enriches work relationships, at other times it can be extremely distracting. Ultimately, the reason we're all there is to work.
How can I help a coworker who refuses to seek help or acknowledge they have an emotional problem? The laws protect the individual; there can be no intervention unless they verbalize a threat of suicide. So what do we do?
Tread carefully, as you’ve become aware that discussion regarding their mental health is unwanted. It may even offend them. Although your heart is in the right place, you do run the risk of being perceived as harassing based on your coworker’s actual or perceived disability (mental illness).
I’m not sure how you arrived at your conclusion that they are mentally ill. In actuality, they may or may not be. Often, we don’t truly know what is going on in the lives of others. There could be a serious physical diagnosis involved, and your coworker is merely struggling to cope. Alternatively, they could have legal, financial, or marital problems, issues with substance abuse, problems caring for kids and/or aging parents, or any number of life challenges.
Sadly, you cannot force someone to seek psychological help or even acknowledge they have a mental health issue. Although you may be correct that your coworker could benefit from professional counseling, they have a right NOT to seek it. At the same time, your coworker must be prepared to bear the consequences of their choice, both personally and professionally.
As difficult as it probably is for you, set your psychological boundaries. You strike me as a caring person, but you do you. You cannot control whether they seek help. Alert management as to this coworker’s problem behaviors and describe how it affects you, customers, and the workplace. Then psychologically back away. Your coworker needs to do their work like anyone else. If they aren’t well enough to be at work on a particular day, tell management about it in behavioral terms (e.g., they are crying uncontrollably, have been gone from their workspace for two hours, is hiding under their desk, etc.).
Similarly, do not discuss your coworker’s behavior with peers. If coworkers have their concerns, tell them to go to management just like you did.
If the company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as many organizations do, it’s typically fine for employees to remind one another that they can call the number for counseling. Usually, this comes up when one of them articulates during daily interaction that they are having personal problems or experiencing emotional distress. If your coworker brings this up, then offer the EAP number rather than over-engaging on their issues. You are not their therapist. Do NOT follow up and ask whether your coworker called EAP, however.
If your company does not have an EAP and your coworker is expressing hopelessness, you might offer one of the following free resources, if appropriate:
• National Hopeline Network 1.800.SUICIDE (1.800.784.2433)
• Crisis Text Line Number 741741
• Chat live: http://hopeline.com/
Let’s hope that your coworker decides to help themselves before their job performance is seriously impacted. As caring as you are, THEY own their mental health.
What should I do if a co-worker tells me that I am passive aggressive, but he is a bipolar?
Just because someone says it, that doesn't make it true. Just because you don't like it doesn't make it false.
Bipolar and passive aggressive are labels, rather than behaviors. Labels do nothing to help solve a conflict. Instead of getting upset about what he said, consider it this way:
Everyone has an opinion, and this co-worker was giving you feedback about how he perceives your work style. Don't automatically dismiss him because he has revealed that has bipolar disorder. (Also, if he didn't share his diagnosis of bipolar disorder with you directly, don't attempt to "diagnose" him either.)
Rather, just as you would for anyone else, simply consider his feedback as ONE point of data among MANY. (You don't believe everything everyone tells you about yourself, right?)
If you consistently hear the same feedback from other people, then that's a trend. In that event, you would be well served to give the "data" more weight, perhaps asking for examples to better understand your behavior and its impact on others. Otherwise, just thank him for his feedback, that's all.
If you do choose to discuss the feedback, be sure to keep things BEHAVIOR-based ("I get frustrated when you interrupt me when I am speaking during team meetings").
© 2013 FlourishAnyway