When Mental Illness Causes Toxicity in the Workplace (Part 1) - Breaking Through Stigma

One of the concerns I am hearing more about lately is how to handle a situation where an employee with a mental health issue is causing a toxic situation in the workplace.

When one employee’s behaviour is causing disruption and conflict with coworkers because of frequent emotional outbursts and failure to work cooperatively and considerately, managers are often at a loss, particularly if the employee says their behaviour is because of their mental illness. Managers often say they don’t know what to do, and worse yet, they are scared to do or say the wrong thing and make the situation worse.

When people are in a position of fear or confusion, or they feel unsupported, they cannot do their best work. When these people are in a position of leadership, these feelings can seriously impair their ability to lead well and meet their targets. Their team suffers. Their reputation and possibly their health suffers. The organization suffers.

In this day and age, with stress and sensitivities running high combined with a heightened awareness of mental health and workplace harassment issues, managers and supervisors need to know what to do when confronted with this type of situation and that they will be supported by HR and upper management in taking appropriate action to detoxify the situation.

In this short 3-part series, I’m going to give you some key things to consider that will help to dispel the confusion and give you confidence in a workable approach.

Don’t Label the Person – Get the Bigger Picture When we label an employee as “toxic” we create a stigma around that person. Notice first that it is we who create the stigma, not them. The person may be behaving in a way that is disrespectful to others, disruptive, aggressive, or even rude. I’m not making excuses for them or condoning the behaviour, but we must distinguish the difference between the person as a human being, and their behaviour. In most situations I’ve encountered, the employee’s behaviour is misunderstood. Let me give you an example.

Stan has frequent outbursts and screams in people’s faces. His disruptive behaviour often makes it impossible to get through meetings. He is so grumpy, disagreeable and explosive that his coworkers don’t like working with him and most managers avoid him or tune him out.

You decide to ask Stan to talk to you about what is bothering him. You need to build some trust with him, so you hold the meeting in a place that is safe and comfortable for both of you, and you let him know that you are concerned about him as well as other employees and that you really want to understand what’s going on.

Then you listen.

Stan is likely to vent. Let him. Don’t react or act surprised. When he is done venting, then you begin exploring the issues.

While listening to Stan, you notice that he has signs of psoriasis, a skin condition related to high anxiety. As you talk further, you get a fuller picture of what has been triggering his erratic behaviour.

This gruff, explosive man is hurting deeply. He doesn’t want to shout and scream. He doesn’t enjoy losing his temper and he feels like an outcast, like everyone is laughing at him and no one takes him seriously, and that only makes it worse. You learn that he feels quite alone since he lost his closest friend 11 years ago to a workplace accident. That’s when Stan became passionate about health and safety, but he is triggered whenever he perceives a lack of respect for the health and safety of his coworkers. On top of that, Stan is worried about his wife, who is chronically ill, he has trouble concentrating at work, and he is having trouble managing his diabetes, especially when things trigger him at work.

The Importance of Why Unless we get a holistic view of someone, our judgement about why they behave the way they do and how to deal with it will always be flawed. We must break through the stigma and see the real person if we want to learn how to address their behaviour in a way that is helpful for them and everyone involved.

We cannot expect employees, whether they have a mental illness or not, to simply leave their troubles at the doorstep when they arrive at work. We are human beings, with a myriad of thoughts and emotions, and personal baggage. Whether the bulk of the employee’s stress is from home or work, we must understand that stress is cumulative, and the longer a person is under chronic stress the more it wears down their resilience. Chronic stress is a serious health hazard that breaks down the grey matter of the brain, making it more difficult to think clearly and control our emotions.

Drafting the Agreement By taking the time and effort to truly understand Stan, you come to some agreements on how to support him in the workplace to reduce his overall stress load. In this case, helping managers understand Stan’s frustration about the health and safety issues and committing to take action eases his stress.

You must still address Stan’s behaviour, letting him know clearly that the respect in the workplace policy applies to everyone and that yelling and screaming and being disruptive is not acceptable. You give Stan the responsibility for his own behaviour and ask him what he will do differently and how he would like to handle future issues in a respectful manner for all involved.

You ask Stan what he is doing to care for his own well-being. You provide him with information about services available through your Employee and Family Assistance Program or in the community that can help him with his coping skills and with some of the other stressors he is experiencing.

That’s not all. You also ask Stan for a follow-up meeting, so you can monitor his progress and address any issues.

The scenario I just laid out was a real-life situation, and the outcome was transformational.

The Key Ingredients for Transformation Hope and dignity. These are the key ingredients for transformation in this type of situation. Every single person needs hope and a sense of dignity. These are basic human needs. Stan felt valued and listened to and he had hope that things could change for the better. That hope was fueled by action, and that helped Stan feel valued and regain his sense of dignity. The outbursts stopped, and when people saw that Stan was getting agitated, they were able to diffuse the situation by coming back to the agreement.

Time to Take Action If you are dealing with a situation where an employee is continually disruptive or uncooperative, even if they say it is due to their mental illness, really think about your approach and the questions you will ask.

If you found this helpful, please don’t keep it to yourself. Like it and share it. Leave me a comment or a question or contact me - I will be happy to answer your questions.

Check back next week for part 2 in this series, when we talk about the main thing that managers and supervisors complain about most when dealing with a “toxic” employee. ■


Liz Horvath is the Founder of Hale Health and Safety Solutions and an experienced Psychological Health and Safety Consultant. She brings over 20 years of experience in occupational health and safety and workplace mental health combined with experience in disability and claims management. She is known for navigating complex and controversial issues in health and safety, making them easier to understand and helping clients see a clear path forward.

Liz has worked with all levels of leadership throughout her career, helping them to significantly reduce their incidents and claims costs, while improving their business results. She has worked with organizations in nearly all industries throughout Canada. She was Project Manager for the creation of the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and is a sought-after international speaker and trainer on psychological health and safety and leadership.

Liz’s goal is to make work a great part of life for as many people as possible, especially for the younger generations, as they step into their own professional and leadership roles.

For more information, visit halehealthandsafety.com or contact Liz Horvath directly at ehorvath@halehealthandsafety.com.

#mentalillness #toxicworkplace #chronicmentalstress

  • White YouTube Icon

© Hale Health and Safety Solutions