HR Response to Mental Health in the Workplace

This post is a Human Resource-oriented comment on this wonderful article, link below:

Responding To Mental Illness in Your Workforce: Leading a Culture Change

Tweeted by @psychcentral 8/3/2011. The author, Carol A. Kivler, MS, CSP takes an enlightened and sensitive approach to individuals suffering with mental illness in the workplace. The article is aimed as helping leaders understand the issue of mental illness in the workplace.  I appreciate this because I have found my HR friends can benefit from increased comfort with this topic.  There are times when my HR training and clinical experience collide.  This is one of them.

A unique perspective

I came to the practice of HR from a business background and then Clinical Social Work.  My views on mental illness and HR arise from a very different place than my HR peers mostly because of my exposure to severe and chronic mental illness.  The sigma Ms. Kivler discusses is very powerful indeed.  Because of my experience, I am not afraid of individuals with mental illness.  I know that these are fellow human beings with a variety of personal values and styles.  I know that only a very small percentage of people with mental illness are violent.  It’s just that when a person with mental illness commits a violent crime, the media, especially fringe media, bombard the general public with disturbing images and sensationalized information.  I also know that most mental health issues in the workplace are mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorders which respond well to medical intervention.

Finally, I know that the mentally ill were not all raised in chaotic or abusive homes. I was raised in a lovely family by good parents (not perfect, but good enough) and had a brother who suffered from bipolar mood swings and psychoses from the age of 20 until his death at 48.  The voices he heard told him that he, and not others around him, were bad. I know first hand that the essence of who he was as a person, was not the paranoid, odd behavior and religiosity my brother expressed, but it was the sweet, creative and sensitive individual who worked part-time while well on medication. He would never have harmed anyone.

The American workplace is in need of good information like the tips covered in Ms. Kivler’s article, particularly making information on mental health a part of wellness programs.  If only employers could take this information and adopt it freely.  I think it is possible but HIPAA presents a psychological and legal barrier to some of the actions suggested in the article.  The discipline of HR tends to be generally risk averse.  It doesnt’ make them mean or uncaring, just cautious.  Let me explain this.

HR is naturally cautious

Employers are responsible for removing the appearance or fact of ADA discrimination.  In addition, employers are required to protect the privacy of employee personal health information.  To do this perfectly, employers would never want to know if someone has a mental illness.  Once you know, you are open to accusations of misusing it in order to keep people from promotions or other employment opportunities.  For this reason, medical benefits information or other employee-employer correspondence regarding the diagnosis of mental illness are kept in separate “medical files” and not in the personnel file to which supervisor’s have regular access.  Employers must also try to prevent this information from being casually released and discussed amongst co-workers.  As such, they may ask employees to refrain from discussing their conditions with their peers.

What is the right balance?

I believe that the answer is to emphasize compassion and inclusion a bit and loosen the mentality of “eliminating” risk to more a risk management posture.  Ms. Kivler’s article is timely because presenteeism is an emerging HR issue.  It’s like absenteeism in that productivity is negatively impacted. However in presenteeism, the employee is at work but distracted by stress and other matters.  Mental illness appears to be one of the growing reasons for this distraction. I would conduct training as Ms. Kivler suggests –  fold this into the wellness program. I would make sure that the HR department is a safe and informed place for any employee to go if he/she needed support for time off or accessing counseling benefits.  This requires that HR staff be held to a high standard of listening, seeing this in the same nonjudmental way that they see say, diabetes, and well versed in the ways in which mental illness can affect employee performance.

I would make sure my performance evaluation system focuses strictly on what and how the employee performs the essential functions of the job and NOT extraneous and irrelevant information like: age, race or disability. I would encourage the company to sensitively approach employees whose performance seems to be impaired by a personal issue in the same way whether it is divorce, an ill relative or their own mental illness.  I would ensure that these individuals receive referrals for EAP or mental health counseling.  And finally, I would ensure that my HR staff are comfortable responding lawfully and respectfully to requests for accommodations for a bona fide disability whether it represents a physical or mental impairment.

Staff training and stereotypes

Part of the role of sexual harassment statutes is to prevent harassment in the workplace.  The practical effect however, is staff training and development.  Employers are comfortable conducting training about how employees should behave when they encounter harassment in the workplace.  This means no sexual innuendo jokes, slang, etc. Ms. Kivler suggests that use of the word “mental” should be more comfortable (I agree 100%). I would add that we could also support employees to be more sensitive about comments that could be harmful: crazy, loony or even worse “lazy” as applied to those suffering from depression when they can’t get out of bed.

I am grateful to Carol A. Kivler for writing about this topic.  It is timely and very important.  I also look forward to @psychcentral’s thoughtful tweets each day on topics of individual mental health.

Contact the author with questions or comments.
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