Addressing Mental Health In The Office

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As we understand more about the human body and life as it is, we have to face the truth that mental disorders are not only real but common. In 2014 it was reported that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illnesses each year. There’s a good chance that if you don’t suffer from mental illness, some of your employees do.

How do you address mental illness without slowing down production? How do you stay empathetic to people’s mental illnesses while still encouraging them to achieve the necessary results that keep a business thriving? That’s a question employers are still learning to answer. The goal of this piece is to narrow in on some of the most common mental disorders you may find in the workplace, and how employers can create an environment that actively helps employees with mental disorders thrive at their jobs.

Anxiety Disorders and Chronic Stress

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be defined as excessive and persistent worrying. Chronic stress is perceived hopelessness in relation to a stress-giving situation. Although different problems, chronic stress can lead to anxiety disorders, and similar things can trigger both.

An overly stressful environment — as workplaces often are — may become nightmares for people with anxiety disorders and chronic stress. The most challenging thing for those with anxiety disorders, specifically GAD, is a lack of control. When curveballs are thrown at employees that make work expectations seem impossible to achieve, or there are unexpected hiccups that affect their output, these disorders find their foothold. For those with anxiety disorders, even when an external trigger has disappeared, the anxiety lingers. Chronic stress, on the other hand, makes it appear as though there is no way — like the external trigger will never go away! While it seems to find its way in through stress-inducing situations, it can make its home in one’s body, bringing on digestive issues, dizziness, chest pain, tremors, and more!

In the workplace, there are some things you can do to reduce stress and therefore cater to those who struggle with anxiety and chronic stress. While the unexpected is bound to happen, you may start catering to people with these disorders by not blaming or punishing them for things out of their control. Doing as much as possible to keep projects going according to plan is good too; avoiding hiccups and not becoming lazy about organization and management is essential. Additional crisis management training could benefit all employees, but especially those with chronic stress and anxiety disorders. And frankly, encouraging a few short breaks and walks never hurts.


A serious illness we as a society are learning more and more about, depression is a lot more than just being sad. Mayo Clinic describes depression as a disorder which “causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” It concludes that it is not something you can “snap out of” and may require long-term treatment. As we know, disorders like depression make it so these feelings aren’t fleeting, and they are sometimes so intensified that they affect one physically.

Sometimes employers, though often unqualified as counselors and biased in their approach, try to convince employees that hard work will help those struggling with depression. They say that it can take one’s mind off of the things they’re sad or worried about. While this may be true in some instances, this isn’t a plausible claim for those with clinical depression. In fact, overworking can actually be a sign of depression itself! So what do we do?

Just Works recently wrote a great piece on how to help employees with depression. The article recommended four ways to address employees who are dealing with depression, listed and summarized below.

Ask How They’re Doing​

Lack of communication can ruin your relationship with a depressed employee. Not only will it leave you frustrated at any bad or incomplete work they do, but it will decrease your chances of finding a way out of the situation. This is unprofitable for the employee and their employer.

Refer Them to an HR Specialist

Seeing as employers are not often qualified to deal with such things, HR may have better advice for them. They can point to resources you’re unaware of, including how to use insurance benefits for the purposes of handling their mental health.

Offer Available Resources

Just Works lists sick leave, paid time off, short-term unpaid leave, and health services (such as One Medical and Talk Space) as resources that may help employees. Some extra time to work through their problems outside of the office, without having to worry about the state of their job, can be monumental for an employee struggling with mental illness.

Address Troubling Behaviors in Context

If you see an employee’s performance slipping, address it to them with objective examples. For instance, “Hey Janet, I see that your numbers are a bit low this month, is there a reason why and anything I can do to help?” or “Tom, you lost several clients this month — are things OK? How can we fix this problem?” Many times, an employee won’t talk about their depression to you directly, so make a point to talk to them about it as soon as you see symptoms. Never accuse them, of course, but be a listening ear and open to hearing what they may have to say. And of course, be timely. Try to address it sooner than later, and use empathy, not anger.


Attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD and ADHD, respectively), when out of control, could cost an employee their job and a business an otherwise great employee. These instances can be decreased if the disorder and symptoms are addressed from the get-go.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines ADHD as a brain disorder marked by ongoing inattention or hyperactivity that interferes with functioning. The definitions of ADD and ADHD have changed over the years, but what you should know is that someone with these disorders won’t necessarily be hyperactive all of the time. In fact they may just have an abnormal amount of trouble focusing. Often, they will have peaks of productivity as well.

You, as an employer, need to be primarily communicative with employees that struggle with attention deficits. See, sometimes those with ADD or ADHD do not pick up on social cues that may indicate their work is slipping. Where you may be able to tell an employee something subtle that gets the message across of changes they need to make, a person with ADHD may not understand that subtlety. Offering to meet with these employees and check in on their productivity, to light a fire under them and keep them focused, may help as well.


When we talk about mental illness, we have to understand that the stereotypes we may see in the media or hear from our friends about certain illnesses are exaggerated parodies of the real thing. Such is often the case with bipolar disorder. The stereotype of a person who is extremely warm and loving one second and irrationally angry the next is not often the case with those who suffer from bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder does involve the unusual shifts in mood and emotions, but it’s not played out in the dangerously violent ways often portrayed in media and fiction.

However, what you do need to understand about your employee with bipolar disorder, is that they do not have control over their mood swings. Stressful situations and unexpected obstacles to a normal work day can further intensify a bipolar person’s trenches of depression, resulting in lost productivity. The more manic symptoms of bipolar disorder may also keep them too distracted to get these work fires put out.

Since bipolar may deal with periods of severity and periods of non-severity, this is where flexible schedules may come in handy. If there’s a way for them to complete some work off hours, they may be able to coordinate some of their work with times they are feeling better, depending on how long they have between mood changes.

Insomnia Disorder

There are a lot of different types of insomnia. As said by the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia is a “complicated condition.” It’s defined as having difficulty sleeping — as in they can’t get to sleep or can’t stay asleep. There are different kinds of insomnia, acute and chronic, and they are defined by how long they last.

Regardless, any kind of insomnia can really destroy an otherwise excellent worker’s internal clock and therefore their work results. This affects their personal income as well as what the company makes. Be assured, insomnia isn’t only affecting their work life but their home life as well. It’s not something people choose; it’s something that happens to them.

If you find this being the case with one or more of your employees, here are some options for you. First of all, know that sometimes stress in the workplace can cause insomnia, because the tension stops people from relaxing enough to sleep. Everything we’ve previously talked about regarding stress in the workplace is applicable here. Additionally, one of the best things you can do as the manager of someone with insomnia is to make their schedule more flexible (as talked about in the above section about bipolar disorder). Offering flex time is a great help to people with insomnia because they may not be well rested during normal work hours. If this is possible, it could be an insomniac’s greatest benefit. And of course, keep open communication with them and let them know you want to help them as much as possible.

As an employer, how do you recommend accommodating those with mental illnesses and keeping productivity high? Let us know in the comments below!

About BrookeFaulkner


I'm a people-person through and through. When I'm not elbows-deep in the inner workings of small business retail, I'm negotiating the mesmerizing world of online community-building and dreaming of new, creative ways to help people connect through the written word. 


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