Mental Illness in the Work Place: For the Employers – Part 4 of 5

Editor’s note: This is part four of a five-part series addressing mental illness in the workplace. Part one explores mental illness in the United States, part two explains ways in which mental illness affects work, part three explains when and how to tell a manager about a mental illness, part four addresses how managers should best proceed with an employee who has a mental illness, and part five makes the connection between the dental industry and depression.

Bosses: An employee who comes to you about personal struggles with mental illness is more than likely already screwing up at work. Because the stigma surrounding mental illness and because of possible judgment from managers and peers, it’s unlikely that anyone would offer up news of mental illness if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. If an employee opens up to you about mental illness, the first and most important thing for you to do is give that employee your undivided attention, and show compassion and understanding. Coming clean about mental illness to someone is terrifying, and that feeling is magnified when that someone is a superior. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, education is key. In the article “Accommodating Mental Illness,” writer Dori Meinert relays a story about one managers response when tasked with managing someone who openly discussed her mental illness. “Monica Coughlin, PHR, corporate HR manager for The Moore Co., in Westerly, R.I., was working with an individual who had been in and out of treatment for severe depression and openly discussed her suicide attempts with co-workers,” Meinert wrote. “To learn more, Coughlin enrolled in a Mental Health First Aid class developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health. There, she learned the warning signs of mental illness, steps for assessing situations and where to find help.” Coughlin said she learned a lot from the class and felt more confident knowing the right thing to say and became more knowledgeable about resources to which she could direct her employee.

Meiner also suggest employers and HR professionals explore the network of trained professionals available through employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs train managers to stay alert for performance problems that could reveal a mental health need but to also protect employees’ privacy. If employees talk openly about their mental illness, managers could also suggest they call the EAP themselves for further assistance. Some EAPs offer telephone consultations, while others refer callers to licensed mental health providers in their community for in-person counseling, Meiner writes.

The below table appears in Meiner’s article, and it helps managers to find the right words when discussing an employees performance in relation to mental illness.

What Not to say:

Try Instead:

“How’s your health?”

“How can we help you do your job?”

“You seem depressed.”

“You’re not your usual self.”

“Snap out of it.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Think positive.”

“It’s always OK to ask for help.”

“I know exactly what you’re going through.”

“It’s hard for me to understand exactly what you’re going through,
but I can see that it’s distressing for you.”

One of the most important tools a manager can utilize when exploring options for employees with mental illnesses is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While most have the misconception that the ADA only covers people with physical disabilities, it covers those with mental disabilities as well. 


The definition of disability in the ADA includes people with mental illness who meet one of these three definitions:

  1.  A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual
  2.  A record of such an impairment
  3.  Being regarded as having such an impairment


An employer must make reasonable accommodations if they are aware of an employee’s mental illness. Reasonable accommodations include: 

  • Providing self-paced workloads and flexible hours
  • Modifying job responsibilities
  • Allowing leave (paid or unpaid) during periods of hospitalization or incapacity
  • Assigning a supportive and understanding supervisor
  • Modifying work hours to allow people to attend appointments with their psychiatrist
  • Providing easy access to supervision and supports in the workplace
  • Providing frequent guidance and feedback about job performance


I realize the news of mental illness from an employee has the potential to throw you for a loop. Don’t worry. It’s a reasonable reaction. But if you follow these guidelines, you have the ability to not only manage the employee properly, you could also create a bond of trust between you and your employee, which could benefit both of you.

Katie Devereaux

Resume Coach and Blogger at Dental Temps Professional Services
Katie Devereaux is a writer and editor, who graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. She has written for several publications in Florida, Alaska and Illinois.
Katie Devereaux

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About Katie Devereaux

Katie Devereaux is a writer and editor, who graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. She has written for several publications in Florida, Alaska and Illinois.