When Mental Illness Causes Toxicity in the Workplace (Part 2) - Upholding Respect in the Workplace f

Last week, we began a discussion about how to how to handle a situation where an employee with a mental health issue is causing a toxic situation in the workplace (see Part 1). We looked at not labeling the employee, but really getting to understand them in a more holistic manner so you can determine how to support them and how to get them to take greater responsibility for their behaviour in the workplace.

Which leads me to my next point…

Don’t Assume that You Can’t Address the Behaviour – Uphold the Code of Conduct Most employees who have mental illness that causes disruption or conflict in the workplace are unaware of the impact that their behaviour has on others. In some cases, their inability to work cooperatively and respectfully with others may indeed be due to their mental illness. This does not mean it is ok to let the situation continue unchecked. That enables the behaviour and often angers other workers who are affected by the behaviour – that perpetuates the stigma and makes the situation even more toxic.

Workplace Harassment

I have heard from managers and supervisors who say they either don’t know how to handle the situation or they are concerned about being accused of workplace harassment when trying to deal with the employee. Learning how to communicate with the employee and resolve conflict in a psychologically healthy and safe manner is critical.

Make sure you clearly understand how to address employment functions (such as performance issues, productivity expectations, working hours, discipline, etc.) in a way that complies with legal requirements and that a reasonable person would not perceive as egregious or abusive. If you are concerned about accusations, you should request a third party, whom you both agree on to be in the room with you during the discussion, to act as a witness. If the worker is a member of union, then they will likely request that a union steward be present. Try to have a union steward who is reasonable and acceptable to both parties. As a manager or supervisor, you may also request that another credible person be present as well. This may help to balance the representation.

I will cover the issue of workplace harassment, sexual harassment and bullying in more detail in a separate post.

HR Process

One of the main complaints I hear from managers and supervisors is that they don’t know how to deal with a “toxic” employee and they get no help from Human Resources. Now, I am not trying to pick on HR, but I will give some tough love here. There are three main issues that feed into these complaints:

1. Managers and supervisors have no idea about the HR process for dealing with an employee who is causing a toxic situation, especially where that employee has a mental illness.

2. They have never been trained on how to communicate with an employee who has a mental illness in a way that is psychologically healthy and safe for both parties.

3. They do not get support from HR when they turn to them for help, sometimes because HR is inconsistent in applying the process or because they are also unsure of what to do.

The policy or code of conduct for a respectful workplace must apply to everyone whether they have a mental illness or not. The process should clearly outline what behaviour is expected and appropriate in the workplace, what action managers and supervisors should take to uphold the policy, and what support they can expect from HR and senior management. The process should include measures to take where an employee has a mental illness that may be the cause of disruptive behaviour or conflict.

If the process is not clear, begin by talking to HR about your concerns, what needs to be clarified and why. A meeting with a consultant who specializes in this area can help to put a clear, solid process in place.

Due Diligence If you work in an organization where you are not getting any help from HR, then you need to take the reigns yourself, and elevate your concerns to top management. You must understand that most people with mental illness are not dangerous to other people. In fact, they are often more vulnerable to physical, mental and emotional injury from others. However, in a situation where an employee with mental illness is exhibiting “toxic” behaviour that impacts other workers, the risk of mental injury from chronic stress may increase for everyone involved.

As a manager or supervisor, you are legally responsible for the health and safety of your workers, and you simply cannot take this lightly. Whether that duty is stated ambiguously in occupational health and safety legislation under a general duty clause, which requires the employer to take reasonable precautions for the health and safety of a worker, or explicitly, as in Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (2017) which now defines “health and safety” as “physical, psychological and social well-being”, it is there.

But true due diligence is not about mere compliance with the law. It is about taking reasonable precautions for the health and safety of a worker – that means any worker. This includes the disruptive worker who has mental illness, and other workers who may or may not have mental illness.

Remember, stigma still reigns in many workplaces, and many employees who suffer with mental illness do not tell their employer. There may be others in your team who are suffering in silence, and the only way you may find out is when they submit a claim for benefits for chronic stress or psychological injury.

If you are serious about taking reasonable precautions, then you may need to seek out training to bolster your own knowledge and skills. Such training should include how to:

  • Recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness in employees

  • Communicate with an employee who may have mental illness about their behaviour and the company’s requirements for a respectful workplace

  • Accommodate an employee with mental illness, if necessary

  • Resolve conflict in a way that is psychologically healthy and safe for all involved and that restores relationships

  • Prepare for and respond to crisis situations

Overall, every manager and supervisor should learn how to lead in a way that is psychologically healthy and safe for everyone involved. They should understand the workplace factors that impact the psychological health and safety of workers, how to assess risk of mental injury, and how to reduce that risk so that workers can do their best work in a way that protects them from psychological injury and promotes their mental health. The National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace provides excellent guidance in this area.

Documentation I cannot stress enough the importance of documentation. It does not need to be extremely detailed but do make sure to write down the steps you took, why, what the outcome was, and whether there were any witnesses.

Note anything that you think might be significant. If you need help, I would be happy to talk with you about training or coaching in this area.

Be sure to check back next week, when we will talk about how to reduce the toxicity in the situation with appropriate workplace accommodation. ■


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

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