It's ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning. Rose sits at her desk in the secretary pool, but her mind is clearly elsewhere. Suddenly, she...

by Debra Stang

It’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning. Rose sits at her desk in the secretary pool, but her mind is clearly elsewhere. Suddenly, she jumps to her feet and runs out of the room. Her boss notices but doesn’t comment. Twenty minutes later, Rose returns to her desk. Her eyes are red from crying, but her focus has improved. She slips on her headset and begins typing a letter that her boss had dictated earlier that morning.

Rose’s story is a simple example of how, with a little flexibility, mood disorders can be accommodated in the workplace.

Mood disorders are mental health problems that profoundly affect a person’s emotions. The Harvard Mental Health Letter, released in February 2010, which addressed mental disorders in the workplace, estimated that about six percent of the population in the United States meets diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode, and one percent can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The letter also cited studies showing that in workplaces where depressed employees received adequate treatment, the number of job-related accidents, sick days, and instances of employee turnover declined, while the number of hours worked and the overall productivity of the workplace went up.

For those that are committed to helping employees with mood disorders thrive in work place—and consequently creating a better environment for all of your employees—there are some steps one can take.

Provide an Employee Assistance Program & Adequate Mental Health Benefits
An EAP allows employees to anonymously access a third-party mental health provider for a limited number of visits at the company’s expense. Employers who advertise their EAP and encourage employees to use it go a long way towards demonstrating a tolerance for mental health issues in the workplace.

Employers also need to be sure that their health insurance policy covers treatment for mental illnesses. Jason Evan Mihalko, a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, states that a good mental health benefit is “the most cost effective benefit for employers to buy.”

Unfortunately, it is often the first benefit that gets cut when finances are tight.

Educate Your Staff about Mental Illness
The sum of what most people know about mental illness comes from Hollywood and televised court cases involving lurid crimes. As a result, people who have mental illnesses are often feared and stigmatized. Karen Muranko, a mental health worker who has a history of panic disorder, says she never disclosed her illness to her bosses because she feared losing her job. “I’d go out to my car, have a panic attack, and go right back to work,” she remembers.

Looking back on what might have helped her, Muranko urges employers to contact their local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI; www.nami.org) and request a speaker to provide a staff in-service on mental health issues. Addressing these issues at a staff meeting or other public forum is another way that employers can communicate their desire to help employees with a mental illness.

In addition, an employer should train frontline managers on how to respond appropriately to employees with mood disorders who request reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Avoid Making Assumptions about the Employee’s Needs
If an employee comes to you to disclose a mood disorder, don’t jump in to suggest solutions. Instead, listen to the employee’s requests. Remember that each employee’s needs are unique, and that what has worked well for another employee with the same problem may not adequately address the needs of this employee.

Peter Zawistowski, a contractor who has lived with bipolar disorder for more than thirty years, relates that during manic episodes he becomes easily overwhelmed. He finds it helpful when employers give him a daily to-do list as opposed to a complex long-term assignment. He also requires regular break times when he can get away and clear his head for a few minutes. With these two interventions in place, he has prospered at work. “If someone is capable of coming in to work on a regular basis,” he says, “I would trust them to know what they need.”

Lynne Eisaguirre, a former employment attorney and the author of several books about maintaining good relationships in the workplace, says that mood disorders usually cause sporadic rather than continuous symptoms.

“Lots of people working with mood disorders do not need any kind of special accommodations,” she says, adding that an employee is most likely to require accommodations when a mood disorder is initially diagnosed, or during a flare-up of depression or mania.

Limit Your Discussions with the Employee to Work-Related Concerns
Your focus should always remain on the employee’s ability to do his or her job. If performance at work or behavior towards co-workers becomes unacceptable, take the employee behind closed doors and express your concerns about job-related issues. During this conversation, you can make a neutral statement like, “If any of this is caused by personal issues, we have an excellent EAP which can help you work things out.”

With this type of encouragement, the employee may disclose having a mood disorder and request reasonable accommodations to help with his or her job performance. Always take requests for accommodations seriously and discuss them as soon as possible with the human resources department and with upper level management who will decide whether a given request is “reasonable” and make appropriate arrangements with the employee.

People with untreated mood disorders can create havoc in the workplace; people who receive the treatment and accommodations they need can number among your most creative and productive employees. Does your organization provide an environment that encourages employees with a mental health disorder to communicate honestly about their job-related needs?

Some employers joke that they would prefer not to know about such issues, but as Eisaguirre used to remind her business clients, “You don’t want the first notice that something is wrong to be the subpoena that lands on your desk.” Avoid that kind of nasty wake-up call and help your employees thrive by taking steps to bring mental health awareness into your office.

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