Talking about mental health

Approaching a team member about mental illness

The discussion you have with your staff member should focus on performance issues, in order to protect you from straying into areas that may violate your staff member's privacy and human rights. The conversation may have elements of outreach, intervention or disclosure, but these should be only possible by-products of your main focus. You should not share assumptions with your staff member, but instead, stick to the facts. This keeps the discussion outcome focused and objective.

Accommodation

Workplaces have the responsibility to accommodate special needs and disabilities. In order to accommodate, information needs to be shared, and this is done best in an atmosphere of openness and support.

Suggested approach

In most cases, the best approach is to meet with the person privately to discuss your concerns about their work-related performance. If you have any concerns about your safety, or your ability to handle the conversation, speak to your HR Client Partner before the meeting.

It is important that you:

  • Approach your concern as a workplace performance issue.
  • Inform the staff member of the possibility of providing accommodations if needed.
  • Provide access to an Employee Assistance Program or a referral to community services.
  • Assure the staff member that meetings with an EAP provider are confidential.
  • Set a time to meet again to review the staff member's performance.
  • Document this meeting objectively (facts rather than opinion).

But there are some things you should not say or do:

  • Do not probe or try to diagnose a problem.
  • Do not offer a pep talk. This assumes they can just "get over it" without treatment.
  • Do not be accusatory.
  • Do not say "I've been there" unless you have been there. You may not understand or relate to a mental health problem, but that shouldn't stop you from offering help.
  • Do not try to make a diagnosis. Even if you suspect a particular illness or problem, focus on how the staff member's behaviour is concerning you and how you want to help them improve.
  • If you learn that a specific illness is causing the behaviour, don't ask what "caused" the illness. Focus on solutions.

At the end of your meeting you may be convinced that your staff member does indeed have a mental health concern. Still, we suggest that you do not infer or hint at this. Remain focused on performance. You may bring up the issue of accommodation in a general way, as part of staff member education.

Discussing personal issues

If your staff member chooses to discuss personal issues with you, including the possible discussion of a mental illness, we suggest that you use your active listening skills to allow the staff member to share. You may at this time inquire into specific ideas the staff member may have about accommodation.

You will want to follow-up with the staff member, or designate someone who can follow-up on your behalf. Keep your notes on the meeting in a secure location. A locked filing cabinet and password-protected computers are essential to maintaining your staff member's confidentiality.

We acknowledge that this conversation can be difficult for most supervisors. Mental Health Works training helps you to be better prepared and to increase your comfort and skill at addressing these complex issues.

Also consider the following:

  • Be aware of your company's accommodation policy (Services for Staff with Disability) and make sure your staff members are also aware of it. This reduces misunderstanding or hostility toward what otherwise may be seen as preferential treatment.
  • Check any human resources issues with your organization's HR representative (HR Partner).
  • Keep mental health issues as part of your company's ongoing focus to reduce stigma and discrimination.
  • Make accommodation part of your management approach.

Follow-up

If the staff member's performance has not improved by the time you meet again after the designated period, and there has been no request for accommodation or leave, it would be appropriate only at that point to consider disciplinary action.

The staff member may not specifically disclose a disability to you, but may seek help from the EAP provider or from a community service provider (such as a doctor, psychologist, or counsellor). After receiving professional help, the staff member might decide to put in a request for workplace accommodation.

Your staff member may not know, or may refuse to acknowledge, that they have a mental health problem. In that case, there may be little you can do to help them. At this point, focusing on work performance is the best approach.


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