An Article about Mental Health in the Workplace
My phone rings. It’s a client.
“Hi Jen, we need to let go of a “difficult” employee.”
Me: “What’s the problem?”
Client: “He was really great for the last 2 years, but in the past few months he’s been really difficult. He turns up late. Picks fight with his colleagues. He’s miserable and it’s affecting everyone. He needs to go.”
I pause, then ask a question that the client doesn’t expect to hear from a lawyer.
Me: “Is he difficult or depressed?”
Client (confused): “What difference does it make?”
Me: “Alot, because the BEHAVIOURS can be the same. You say he was a good employee for the first 2 years. Is it possible he has a mental health issue”?
Client (even more confused): “I don’t know … does it matter?”
Me: “Yes, it does…”
Client: “But I really need to fix this today…”
I can hear the frustration in his voice. He’s been managing this situation for 2 months.
Me: “I get it. But tell me, have you ever sacked an employee because they had a broken leg?”
Client: “No, of course not….but what’s a broken leg got to do with….”
Long pause. [Cue the sound of a penny dropping].
I have this conversation alot – with decent, capable managers. The fact that they do not recognise, let alone understand mental health issues, does not make them bad people.
The incidence of mental health issues in the workplace is under-reported. Often employees go to great lengths to hide an illness. For some, the “flu” and “gastro” have become pseudonyms for “anxiety” or “depression”.
Mental illness is invisible. We can’t see it, the way that we can see a physical injury.
Sure the CONSEQUENCES are there for all to see – absenteeism, lateness, disinterest – but too often, these BEHAVIOURS are attributed to ATTITUDE rather than AILMENT.
We focus on the effect and ignore the cause.
It’s easier to look the other way – to adopt a “It’s none of my business” approach.
But at what cost?
Untreated mental health issues – reduced productivity, absenteeism and compensation claims – costs Australian employers nearly $11 billion a year.
Every year, 1 in 5 employees take time off work because of poor mental health – that’s 20% of the workforce.
If we had 20% of our workforce hobbling around on crutches, we would be asking questions.
So let’s start asking questions about mental health.
Let’s talk about it openly.
Let’s educate and train.
Let’s provide support.
And next time there’s “a difficult” employee, take a moment to consider the cause of their behaviour, not just the effect.
You could not only change one person’s life, but the whole culture of your workplace.