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Working with Mental Illness

How to create a safe, productive work environment for those dealing with mental health conditions.

Megan Holmes* loved her new job working in the international humanitarian field, but she had one concern. She had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and she worried about it being triggered by a memory of the trauma while at work. However, she was also reluctant to share this personal information.

“With any mental illness, there’s always a stigma attached,” she says of her apprehension to disclose her condition. But she also knew that telling her boss about her situation would help her feel safer and obtain any special accommodations she might need.


When she felt situated in her new position, she decided to have the conversation. She was surprised—and relieved—when her boss responded in a sympathetic and supportive way. “It was very positive and professional,” Holmes says, adding that the response was something like, “We are so sorry. Something bad has obviously happened to you; please let us know how we can help.”

Holmes isn’t alone. According to Mental Health America, one in every five adults live with a mental health condition, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that mental illness touches millions of Americans annually. Be it depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, dementia, autism, PTSD, schizophrenia, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, few people remain untouched by mental illness.

Michael Thompson, an associate dean at BYU Marriott, sees mental health issues becoming more prevalent every year. “We are all subject to these kinds of challenges,” says Thompson, who is involved with the student-run BYU Marriott Mental Health Council. “If it’s not us, it’s someone we’re close to.”

Chances are, if mental illness hasn’t touched your life in some way, it will. To be supportive and aware, BYU Marriott works to create a helpful, caring environment where mental health issues are discussable and shareable. Fortunately, many organizations are doing the same.

Not everyone with a mental health condition will feel the need to disclose it to their employer. But for those, like Holmes, who do, there are constructive ways for both the employee and employer to communicate in order to encourage positive outcomes for both parties.

Positive, Respectful Conversations

Mark Johnson* struggled with anxiety and depression while living in New York City. He decided to talk to his boss when his struggles came to a head and were impacting his performance at work, but he shut down when his boss responded with, “Well, maybe you just need more sleep.” For Johnson, that marked the beginning of the end of his employment at that organization. “If she had been willing to have a conversation, I think we could have made changes to improve things,” he observes.

When responding to someone disclosing a mental health condition, Steve A. Smith, director of the Counseling and Career Center at BYU, says it’s not helpful to suggest a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Instead, responses could be something like, “Tell me about it. Tell me how this is affecting your work. How can I help you manage this?”

Being empathetic, being respectful, and being an active listener are essential components to successful conversations, says Emily Haymond, director of human resources at Pioneer Building Services, a commercial cleaning contractor in Potomac, Maryland. “It is our role as managers to help our employees succeed,” says Haymond, who graduated from BYU with a degree in American studies with a minor in management in 2008.

Individuals who approach their supervisors or managers to disclose mental health conditions should assure their bosses that they want to do their best work, Smith advises. And then, he says, individuals can suggest accommodations that could help achieve that goal—things that have worked in the past or suggestions from the professionals who made the mental health diagnosis. Bosses and employees can also brainstorm solutions together.

Sometimes a manager may need to approach an employee because of performance or attendance issues, Haymond says. In those instances, it’s important to stick to facts and not make assumptions about the mental health of an employee or the best way to resolve the issues. “If I’ve learned anything in HR,” she says, “it’s that what you think is going to happen probably isn’t going to happen.”

After discussing factual information, a manager could ask, for example, “Is there something I need to know that could help you with better attendance?” This type of question creates an opening for an employee to share personal struggles. “If you show people respect, they’re going to feel they can be open with you,” Haymond says. “They just need to feel safe to be able to do so.”

Work Accommodations

Individuals with mental health conditions can experience unpredictable cognitive difficulties, making it hard to recall details, remain focused, think clearly, and change activities, among other things, according to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA.) Accommodations can help these individuals work more efficiently while they manage their conditions.

Of course, for employees to obtain reasonable accommodations, they must disclose—which can be a barrier if they aren’t sure their managers have an understanding of mental health issues, says Mary Blake, public health advisor at SAMHSA.

Creating a mental health–friendly work environment can help employees feel safe sharing information and requesting accommodations. Just as the BYU Marriott Mental Health Council raises awareness of mental health issues and encourages students to get help when they are struggling, BYU Marriott works to support its faculty and staff. In semiannual interviews with department chairs and center directors, Thompson says that the questions always include: How are your people doing? Do they feel supported? “We are not just talking about productivity and teaching; we’re also talking about how people experience their work,” he says.

In addition to face-to-face conversations, broad-based messages can make a big difference, Blake says. For example, a company’s website could have a statement about being inclusive of diversity, including people with disabilities such as mental illness, or an organization might launch an awareness campaign designed to inform and support those dealing with mental illness.

Accommodations vary and are based on the specific needs of the individual, Haymond points out. There is no one-size-fits-all answer; each situation must be evaluated to assess the best solution. That being said, some accommodations might include:

  • Communicating often. Jacob J. Olson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from BYU in 2014, found that open communication was the key to him successfully working full-time as a data analyst while dealing with severe anxiety. Olson’s boss carved out time every two weeks to meet with each of his employees. “I tried to be very open with him about what my current restrictions were,” Olson says. Communicating often and openly enabled the two to work together to ensure positive outcomes.
  • Minimizing work stressors. Blake explains that a person with a mental health condition might have great work performance under normal circumstances, but symptoms may worsen when work gets particularly stressful. Workplace stressors can be minimized by creating a quiet workspace. Large assignments can be broken into smaller tasks. Individuals can be provided with electronic organizers or to-do lists to help manage their workloads. Mentoring can be offered to help with prioritizing tasks.
  • Adding flexibility. Johnson, who left his New York City job and now works in Washington, DC, says his new employer is flexible with Johnson’s arrival time at work—as long as the work gets done. “That kind of flexibility is good for someone with depression,” he notes. Flexible arrival and departure times allow individuals to work during times of day that are most productive and engaging for them. Flexibility also makes it possible for people to go to healthcare or counseling appointments. Employers may also allow individuals to receive limited on-site counseling during work time.
  • Teleworking. Becky Evans, who recently retired as a human resources specialist at the Office of Justice Programs in the US Department of Justice, says her office spent years developing a telework program to support office goals and provide greater flexibility for workers. Some skeptical supervisors became convinced of the value of teleworking a couple of years ago during multiple snow days in Washington, DC; employees were allowed to work from home, work still got done, and emails were actually returned faster than normal. Teleworking can also help individuals with mental health conditions get on top of their concerns and get their support systems in place, says Evans, a 1985 BYU graduate. “We still receive the benefit of their expertise,” she notes, “and they can still work while addressing personal needs.”
  • Taking leave. Sometimes taking leave is a necessary step. Haymond once had an employee with major attendance and performance issues. While discussing performance, the employee requested a leave of absence to receive help for a mental health condition. “When we all paused and listened to the individual, we felt a leave of absence was needed,” she says. “When the leave ended and the employee returned, he was like a whole new person because he sought the help that was needed.”

Awareness Campaigns

Heather Coleman, who is a senior human-resources manager at Target in Tucson, Arizona, was always the one lending support and encouraging people with mental health concerns to access help. When the tables turned and Coleman experienced a traumatic life event—leaving her with PTSD, anxiety, and depression—her doctor suggested she take some time off work. “I feel like there’s a stigma against taking time off,” Coleman says. “The higher I got in the company, the more pressure I put on myself, creating this false sense of how much I thought I was needed.”

But Coleman knew she needed time off for the sake of her children, so she tested the strength of Target’s I’m Fine mental health campaign. She approached her leadership and received the okay to take a leave of absence. The message she received was, “You’ve given a lot to Target; now it’s time for us to give back to you.”

The I’m Fine campaign promotes the robust resources and benefits in place to support employees with mental illnesses. Mental health specialists deliver presentations, and well-being screenings are offered. Managers regularly receive training on mental health, and Target has a toll-free number and a website where employees can reach out for help.

In the end, Coleman felt her leave of absence was highly beneficial. “I was defining myself by the experience, like I’m a victim,” she explains. “Coming out of taking this time off, I’m like, no, I’m a victor.” She feels she can give her best at work now.

A number of other companies have also created programs to increase mental health awareness—DuPont being prominent among them. The company donated its award-winning mental health campaign, ICU, to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health. The center makes ICU available to employers everywhere; the program is designed to work with existing mental health campaigns.

ICU aims to reduce mental health stigmas while creating a culture supportive of mental health. The program features a short video teaching that, just as those in physical distress need treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU), those in emotional distress may need help from those around them—thus, ICU becomes “I See You.”

The acronym teaches people to

  • Identify the signs of distress. Is a colleague acting distant, unusually tired, melancholy, or withdrawn?
  • Connect with that individual in a quiet place to express care and concern.
  • Understand the way forward. Have a conversation, which could include pointing the individual to helpful resources, such as the company’s employee assistance program.

Staff at DuPont responded positively to ICU; they felt it gave them the green light to reach out and show concern and compassion for their peers. Haymond has observed that people tend to have a hard time connecting when they’re struggling. “It’s a relief for the whole team once help is sought,” she says. To learn more about the campaign or to view the five-minute video, visit workplacementalhealth.org/Employer-Resources.

If you’re not sure what you can do to make a difference, the answer is simple: support and genuinely care about those around you. These campaigns—and individuals such as Holmes and Coleman—were successful because somebody cared. As more and more people are impacted by mental health conditions, either personally or by association, there’s an increase in empathy and awareness, Thompson says: “It’s motivated by a sense of caring.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminds us, “Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind” (“Like a Broken Vessel,” October 2013 general conference).

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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Rights for Those with Mental Health Conditions


A mental health diagnosis is a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The following are legal rights for those with mental health conditions:

Disclosure is optional.
Applicants and employees have a right to privacy. Unless requesting work accommodations, they decide whether to disclose mental health conditions to their employers. An employee can still request accommodations if a mental health condition wasn’t disclosed during the hiring process.

Seeking accommodations.
The employer may request documentation from a mental health professional if the employee requests a work accommodation. The information is to be kept private. Employers are required to provide reasonable work accommodations unless it causes undue hardship to the company.

A secure offer.
Applicants may have to take a medical exam after a job has been offered. If the exam reveals a mental health condition, the offer is secure unless there’s evidence that the individual can’t perform the vital tasks of the job and can’t be reasonably accommodated, or unless the condition raises a true safety concern.

Confidential information.
Federal contractor employers must ask applicants and employees to voluntarily disclose a disability. The information is used to assess progress toward disability employment goals. Information must be kept confidential.

Source: ADA National Network

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Article written by Jennifer Mathis
Illustrations by Blair Kelly

About the Author
Jennifer Mathis has been writing for Marriott Alumni Magazine since 2000. She graduated in mass communications from BYU in 2002 and resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her family.

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