As an employer, manager, or supervisor, it is not your job or your responsibility to diagnose a mental health problem. However, being aware of the signs that suggest someone might be experiencing a mental illness is important. Mental illness includes a broad range of symptoms and behaviors, and it is not easy to determine whether someone is mentally ill. One key indicator is that someone may begin to act uncharacteristically—for example, an energetic person may seem lethargic for a considerable time, or a person who is usually mild may make grandiose claims about their abilities.

Behavior changes such as these may reflect personal difficulties that can easily be resolved. Maybe the person is no longer happy with his or her job. The individual might be going through a particularly stressful time in at home. These behavior changes might, however, indicate that the person is experiencing a mental health problem that goes beyond being “stressed-out” and that requires professional help.

If an employee’s behavior is a workplace problem, talking to him or her privately may help you determine whether mental health is a factor. You may be able to encourage the individual to get help and/or request appropriate accommodation while dealing with the mental health issue. Below is a guide for talking to an employer about mental health.

Talking to your Employee

Broaching the question of an employee’s health as it relates to work performance can be a delicate task, especially when mental health problems might be involved. It’s important to prepare for your meeting and know your company’s policies.

Spend some time looking into the basics of mental health and illness before you talk with the employee. Misunderstanding and fear are the greatest barriers people face in dealing with a mental health problem; be aware of the possibility that your own misconceptions and fears might interfere with your ability to respond appropriately.

It is important that you:

  • Approach your concern as a workplace performance issue.
  • Before assuring an employee that his or her information will be kept confidential, however, make sure you know what the company policy is, who you have to share the information with and in what form. Have a copy of the company policy available for the employee.
  • Think about the person’s strong points and contributions that he or she has made. It will be important to talk about the ways in which the employee is valued before raising areas of concern.
  • Find out what resources your organization can offer an employee who is in distress. (Does your organization have an Employee Assistance Program?) Have this information at hand when you meet with the person. Provide access to an Employee Assistance Program or referral to community services.
  • Raise the possibility of providing accommodations if needed.
  • Set a time to meet again to review the employee’s performance.
  • Document this meeting fully.

But 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 behavior, don’t ask what “caused” the illness. Focus on solutions.

At the same time, remember that your job is not to probe into an employee’s personal life, to diagnose a problem, or to act as their counselor. Be prepared for the possibility that, while you may be opening a door to offer help, the employee may choose not to walk through the doorway.