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Supporting Employee Mental Health Issues

Heather Salko, Esq.
March 2022
Institutions must provide more attention and effective responses to the increasing mental health issues affecting their employees.

Events of the last few years have placed increased strain on people’s mental health, and workplaces are not immune from these changes. Increases in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can affect employees’ productivity and physical health. Devoting attention, resources, and interventions to addressing mental health issues in the workplace is no longer something your institution K-12 school, college, or university can ignore or expect employees to deal with on their own.

Take proactive steps to understand employee mental health issues and address them when appropriate. Pretending these issues don’t exist can ultimately lead to claims of discrimination, failure to accommodate, or wrongful termination.

Create a Culture of Caring

Embedding a healthy mindset and culture of caring for employees is the first step in helping to create a workplace supportive of employee mental health. Similar to a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) statement, create a statement outlining your institution’s mental health philosophy and explicitly encourage your workforce to prioritize mental health issues. Consider how these actions fit within your overall employee well-being strategy. Some institutions may survey employees about their workplace limitations and stress.

In addition, take steps to de-stigmatize mental health concerns. Leaders should be open with staff about their own struggles with mental health issues, including stress and work/life balance. Leaders also should encourage employees to end the workday at a reasonable hour and attend to their own physical and mental health. Leaders must promote stress reduction by setting an example.

Your institution also may want to mirror a student mental health awareness campaign targeted to employees.

Training

While employees are being more forthcoming about their mental health issues, it is still important to train human resources personnel and managers in:

  • Identifying possible mental health issues
  • Helping employees find resources
  • Addressing performance problems stemming from employees’ mental health-related issues

There are many options for training managers to identify warning signs of employees’ mental health issues, but some signs include:

  • Change in appearance, such as becoming increasingly unkempt
  • Easily frustrated and short-tempered with co-workers
  • Decrease in productivity or noticeable change in work performance
  • Avoiding social events or casual interactions with colleagues

Training should address identifying these and other troubling signs as well as how to approach employees to offer help. Other key training components include:

  • What to do with the information once the employee shares it
  • Confidentiality
  • When and how to report concerns or observed problems to your Human Resources department

Training also should include information on avoiding stereotyping and retaliation.

Consider additional training on how to supervise in a trauma-informed way. Some institutions have incorporated this thinking into day-to-day supervision and interactions post-pandemic.

Evaluate Policies and Procedures

Review your non-discrimination, anti-retaliation, and medical leave policies to ensure they don’t exclude employees who disclose a mental health condition or who may be considered having a mental health condition. These policies should align with your absenteeism policy, code of conduct, and workplace violence policies. Comprehensively reviewing these policies will ensure you aren’t treating employees with mental health conditions differently from other employees, including approving Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requests when appropriate. Consider whether your short- and long-term disability policies need to be updated.

Be Prepared for Accommodations

Educate employees on your policies and the procedure for requesting an accommodation.

An employee’s mental health condition or diagnosis may qualify as a disability under state or federal law. Educate employees on your policies and the procedure for requesting an accommodation. If the employee’s condition is a qualified disability, your institution has a duty to accommodate the disability and should be prepared to evaluate any accommodation request using the same interactive process.

Mental health-related accommodations may look different than accommodations for a physical disability, and you should prepare to address these differences. Examples of accommodations include:

  • Time off for therapy appointments
  • Flexible start and end times
  • Working from home
  • Job coaching
  • Trimming of workload or responsibilities

Supervisors also should understand that certain disclosures by an employee (such as, “I need to attend weekly therapy.”) may qualify as a request for accommodation, and they should follow your procedure for documenting and involving Human Resources.

 

More From UE

Checklists: Workplace Anti-Discrimination Policies and Response

Checklist: Assessing Your Employee Performance Evaluation System

Legal Literacy for Supervisors

Guide to Preventing Retaliation on Campus

Avoiding Supervisory Pitfalls

Additional Resources

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation: Cultivating Wellness — Mental Health Training in the Workplace

HR Future magazine: Healthy Boundaries and Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mental Health in the Workplace