Learning & Development

Mental Health: Addressing A Significant Workplace Issue

Are your managers and staff prepared to handle mental health issues in the workplace? If not, they should be. Here is why:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness in any given year, as reported by the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI). Most (18.1%) suffer from various anxiety disorders, others battle depression (6.9%), bipolar disorder (2.6%) and even schizophrenia (1.1%). Mental health can lead to substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration and, from a talent management standpoint, performance-related issues.


Chances are that there are employees in your workplace that suffer from mental illness. Chances are that some them may be members of your HR team or senior leadership team. Chances are your staff may have to deal with customers and vendors who also may have mental health concerns.
What should you be doing to bring this issue out of the shadows while still appropriately—and legally—protecting employee privacy?
The Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) definition of a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Individuals with such disabilities have a right to privacy and, as appropriate, job accommodations under the ADA.
Because the chances are high that some members of your workplace fall into this category, it’s important to understand what you can do from a legal—and practical—standpoint. The ADA offers some practical pointers for employers:

  • Ensure you have a process in place to respond when a mental illness issue may arise. Employees are not required to self-report mental illness, and employers are ill-advised to ask! But if and when issues emerge, it’s important for supervisors and managers to know how to respond and what resources are available—for them, the impacted employee, and coworkers.
  • Establish an environment where employees will feel safe to come forward if they have a mental illness that has the potential to impact their job performance.
  • Safety should be an obvious concern, but be fact-based and focused on evidence rather than general fears. There are many myths and misconceptions about mental illness that are unfounded.
  • Take steps to ensure that managers and supervisors, as the likely “first responders,” know how to handle accommodation requests and can “set the tone for disability inclusiveness in the workplace.”
  • Consider using an employee assistance program (EAP) or Employee Resource Group (ERG) to help create a positive environment and provide resources for impacted employees.
  • Send a clear message to all that harassment and bullying will not be tolerated.
  • Work to build a climate and culture of trust and openness. Remember that actions speak louder than words. How you address issues that emerge will set the tone.

Mental illness affects all of us. From an employee development standpoint, taking steps to create a climate of understanding and acceptance and ensuring that impacted employees are able to find accommodations that allow them to continue to contribute is the right thing to do from both an organizational and societal perspective.