HR Mavericks

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Mental Illness in the Workplace
Awareness of mental illness in the workplace is growing more than ever, but are you prepared to have these conversations with your employees? Are you able to spot the signs, stand by and professionally encourage your employees who are struggling? Let’s dive into this discussion together.

What Is Mental Illness in the Workplace?

Mental illness in the workplace prevents employees from coping with the day-to-day stresses of life and work while interacting positively with others. This type of illness is considered a health problem and will significantly affect how your employee feels, behaves, and interacts in the workplace.

Why is it Important for Employers to Know About Mental Illness in the Workplace?

In today’s workplace, employers should take a proactive approach to learn about mental illness to create a dynamic work environment. Here are a few specifics showing how critical it is for employers to be well informed about mental illness in the workplace.
  • Employee health. The severity of mental illness can range in the workplace, so a knowledgeable employer can protect the health and safety of their employees struggling with a mental illness.
  • Job performance. Knowledge of mental health in the workplace helps employers evaluate job performance appropriately. Should there be a lack of peak performance, without an understanding of mental illness, it would be easy to discipline when the discussion would be a better course of action.
  • Retention. The ever-challenging role of keeping employees employed improves when employers take a proactive stance on mental illness at work. When you show your employees you are focused on helping them achieve their career success, illness or not, you create trust which leads to increased retention.

Types of Mental Illness in the Workplace

While mental illness can range widely, we’ll focus on the most common types of mental illness in the workplace today.


Depression is the most common mental health issue in the workforce. High levels of absenteeism and loss of productivity will plague employees struggling with depression. Often, employees may not even be aware of what is happening but feel fatigued and restless while experiencing irrational emotions they cannot explain. Depression in the workplace can lead to fear of job loss as employees struggle with this hidden illness and are not sure how to discuss it with their employer.


Symptoms from depression and anxiety can seem similar, as productivity drops while absenteeism increases, but there are notable differences between the two. Anxiety can cause serious impairment in daily activity and manifests more frequently with physical symptoms like upset stomach, neck and back pain, and headaches. Most individuals struggling with anxiety receive some form of treatment such as pain relievers or therapy because they are more aware of their anxiety due to physical manifestations.

Loss of Concentration

Loss of concentration is most commonly associated with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia which all lead to a lack of focus or concentration when trying to complete a task. The loss of concentration typically manifests as an inability to focus due to hyperactivity, restlessness, and flights of imagination that derail productivity. This leads to a myriad of human errors such as poor decision-making and a decrease in morale as employees walk through this mental illness at work.


The inability to fall asleep or stay asleep is a common mental illness in the workplace. When your employees are not receiving adequate sleep due to insomnia, it can lead to other mental illnesses as well as decreased overall performance.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental illness that can occur after an individual experiences a traumatic event, is also common in today’s workplace. Traumatic events include, but are not limited to, war combat, sexual abuse, and natural disasters. Typically when this arises in the workplace, employees feel overwhelmed by thoughts and memories of the trauma and are unable to complete their normal work.

How To Identify Mental Illness in the Workplace

As an HR professional, it is your job to observe and spot the signs of mental illness in your workforce. Sometimes the changes in an employee’s behavior come on quickly and abruptly making them easier to spot, but they can also appear subtly over time, making the illness harder to spot. Here are a few things to look out for when identifying mental illness.

Poor Physical or Emotional Appearance

Many people with mental health issues may not keep up their appearance and have poor hygiene habits and dress at work. Similarly, the emotional appearance can alter as well, and you may observe mood swings, erratic behavior, and inconsistent emotions. There can be extreme highs and extreme lows when an employee is struggling with a mental illness. Looking for an easily irritated, frustrated, or angered employee with an unusual physical and emotional appearance is a great way to identify mental illness in the workplace.

Increased Time Off Requests

When employees are struggling with their mental health, they may increase their time-off requests. If your employer does not require “reasons” for time-off requests, this can go unnoticed but pay close attention if these requests go up. If your organization requests a reason for the time-off, look for phrases like “mental health day” or “just need time-off” to help you identify potential mental illness issues.

Decrease in Productivity

A decrease in productivity could be caused by overall fatigue from lack of sleep, anxiety or depression, or whatever the specific illness may be. It’s normal for every employee to have bad days and miss goals, but noticing the difference between an “off month” and the gradual decline in production due to mental illness is critical to recognize.

Increased Withdrawal

When an employee begins withdrawing from social situations, this can be a sign of a mental illness. Many individuals suffering from mental illness manifest with symptoms of loneliness and self-loathing, causing them to isolate themselves. Should you notice this type of behavior, you’re on your way to identifying mental illness in your workplace.

How To Handle Mental Illness in the Workplace

Whether you admit it or not, about one-in-five of your employees is working with a mental illness. Therefore it would be beneficial to create a plan to respond effectively to these discussions as they arise. Let’s see how this could play out for your organization.

Tip 1: Be Understanding and Respectful of Accommodations

When an employee makes the decision to come forward with an accommodation request, it is important to handle the situation with grace and respect. Employees should request these accommodations before a mental illness impacts their job performance, but that is not always the case. Be sure you are listening and really hearing what your employee is saying when they request accommodation so you can encourage them. Hopefully, through the accommodations, they will be able to perform to the required expectation.

Tip 2: Have Frequent Discussions with Your Managers

Due to their position, your managers might be the front line when it comes to observation and encouraging accommodation requests for employees. Instigate discussions with managers and HR frequently so they feel prepared and supported to have these conversations with employees as they come up.

Tip 3: Create Supportive Systems Within the Organization

Building trust with employees and creating a safe environment will be key to creating supportive systems. Whether your employees want to talk directly with HR or prefer to talk to their manager, do not pressure further discussions if they are not ready. This step requires you to ask some hard questions about your workplace to create a support system for all employees with mental health needs. Be focused on what happens to employees when they come forward with an accommodation request due to mental illness. Do they stay employed or do they leave involuntarily or voluntarily? Take that information and utilize it to create a more supportive system within your organization, from HR to your front line and all employees.

Tip 4: Organize Continual Training about Mental Illness

Your organization can never have enough training when it comes to mental illness in the workplace. Whether you are training managers and leadership on how to spot mental illness in employees and navigate discussions or you are training employees how to spot mental illness in themselves or colleagues, ongoing training is critical. Harassment and bullying can surround mental illness because they are so widely misunderstood. You can avoid this in your workplace by providing training and direction from employer to employees.
Shalie Reich

Shalie Reich

Shalie has over 4 years of experience working in a variety of HR positions and organizations including: working as an HR department "of one", working with a start-up based in Europe, to working in a fully established robust USA based HR department. Shalie has experience in multiple states and countries with all aspects of the HR spectrum. She has a passion to share her knowledge and experience to benefit the HR profession!
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