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How Employers Can Support Their Employees

It would be an understatement to say that 2020 was a stressful year for Americans. The pandemic has impacted families and employees. From January to September of 2020, Mental Health America, the nation's leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all, surveyed over 1.5 million Americans and reported the following:

  • The mental health of our youth is worsening.

  • Suicidal ideation among adults is increasing.

  • There is still an unmet need for mental health treatment among youth and adults.

  • The percentage of adults with a mental illness who are uninsured increased for the first time since the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

  • Even before COVID-19, the prevalence of mental illness among adults was increasing.

In a 2020 survey conducted by Universal Health Services, 62% of American adults reported increased stress, anxiety, and/or depression. These mental health issues have negatively impacted the productivity of employees.

According to a survey by mental health benefits provider Lyra Health and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, two-thirds of employees report that poor mental health has undercut their job performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 40% of employees are battling burnout.

Employees may be working relentlessly amid economic uncertainty with few social outlets and possibly juggling childcare to boot, disturbing any work-life balance. Meanwhile, working from home can make it difficult for supervisors to detect emerging mental health issues.

But there is good news! In January of this year, the American Psychological Association reported that employers are talking about employee mental health more than before. Even pre-pandemic, employers were already learning to be more proactive in identifying symptoms of depression, anxiety and other disorders. As employers and coworkers, here are six red flags to consider:

  • Changes in work habits.

  • Changes in physical appearance.

  • Changes in demeanor.

  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness.

  • Outbursts and mood swings.

  • Seeming withdrawn or avoiding interaction.

You should know, too, that major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder rarely appear out of the blue. According to the American Psychiatric Association, often, family, friends, teachers, or individuals themselves begin to recognize small changes or a feeling that something is not quite right about their thinking, feelings, or behavior before an illness appears in its full-blown form. Fifty percent of mental illness begins by age 14, and three-quarters begin by age 24. Learning about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, and taking action can help. Early intervention can help reduce the severity of an illness. It may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.

If you encounter an employee with a self-disclosed mental health issue, here are some steps you can take:

  • Approach your concern as a workplace performance issue.

  • Raise the possibility of providing accommodations if needed.

  • Provide access to an Employee Assistance Program or referral to community services. Assure the employee that meetings with an EAP provider are confidential.

  • If you don't have an EAP, you may call a mental health provider with the employee's consent.

  • Set a time to meet again to review the employee's performance.

  • Document meetings completely.

Equally important, there are some things you should not say or do:

  • Don't offer a pep talk.

  • Don't be accusatory.

  • Don't say "I've been there" unless you have been there. You may not understand or relate to a mental illness, but that shouldn't stop you from offering help.

  • Don't try to give a name to the underlying issue. Even if you suspect a particular illness or problem, focus on how the employee's behavior is concerning you and how you want to help them improve.

  • If you learn that a specific illness is causing the action, don't ask what caused the condition. Focus on solutions.

  • Your employee 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.

Finally, I suggest taking an empathetic approach. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I've read that empathy cannot be taught, but it can be inspired. With that in mind, please take a look at this video.

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