When Mental Illness Causes Toxicity in the Workplace (Part 3) - Accommodating to Avoid Triggers

In my last two blogs (see Part 1 and Part 2), we have been discussing how to handle a situation where an employee with a mental health issue is causing a toxic situation in the workplace. First, 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.

Then, we addressed how to deal with the situation and protect yourself when the company’s process is not clear or when you do not have support from HR.

Today, we will look at how to reduce the toxicity in the situation by accommodating the needs of the employee.

Don’t Give Up – Work with the Employee on Needs and Expectations

John C. Maxwell, a world-renowned leadership guru said, “Leadership is the capacity to care. And in caring to liberate the ideas, energy and capacities of others.” I believe this is true, and this is why I work with people in leadership roles to help them gain the skills they need.

What does this have to do with managing a “toxic” employee? Everything!

Let’s go back to the original question that led to this blog series: What to do when one employee’s behaviour is causing disruption and conflict with co-workers because of frequent emotional outbursts and failure to work cooperatively and considerately, and they say it is because of their mental illness.

The manager or supervisor’s job is to ensure that the job gets done, on time, within budget and according to the expected requirements. If you are managing a worker who has a mental illness, they may need accommodation to be able to achieve these goals.

When a worker with mental illness is seen as being disruptive, the stigma may exacerbate the behaviour. The harder the situation is, the more a caring attitude is called for.

People who have mental illness may be suffering from physical or emotional pain, or both. They may feel uncertain about their circumstances or their future. They may struggle with excessive worry (a.k.a. anxiety), sadness, hopelessness, and even anger. If they are taking medication, there could be an imbalance. This can happen even when the medication was previously working.

The important thing is not to assume or guess. Care enough to ask the right questions and take the right action. It is the only way to break through the cloud of stigma and sensitivity and build trust. This will help everyone involved – even in the future. With a quarter of our population at high risk for mental illness, you need to instill trust among your team that you will be able to handle these situations.

The worker may need accommodation to help them maintain their sense of balance and security. If you are already accommodating them, then you should review the accommodation plan because it may not be appropriate.

The goal of accommodation is to support the worker, so they can be as productive as possible given their state of well-being.

The needs for accommodation may vary greatly. In some cases, temporary accommodation may be needed to help the worker through a difficult time or situation (e.g. dealing with a personal situation, working through grief, medication adjustments, etc.). In others, a more permanent accommodation may help by reducing the risk of exposure to a workplace stressor that triggers a negative response, such as when the worker has suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) from a workplace or personal experience. Others may only involve implementing a procedure for early intervention if the worker begins experiencing a decline in their mental health or their ability to control their behaviour.

Quick Tips to Guide You in the Right Direction

  1. Think about how you will address the situation in a way that upholds, or even improves, the worker’s sense of dignity and respect. An employee who has frequent emotional outbursts likely doesn’t want to act out and may be embarrassed and sensitive afterward. They may put up a psychological wall to defend themselves, particularly if they feel resentment from others. Set up a safe place and time to have a private conversation with them.

  2. If the worker is covered by a union, you should have a union representative present at the meeting. Discuss the situation and your approach with the union representative before the meeting to gain their trust and support. If there are any forms or documentation you will be suggesting, make sure you have discussed this with the representative before the meeting. You do not want to put the worker, the union representative, or yourself in an awkward position during the meeting.

  3. Let the worker know you would like to talk with them about the situation and how to help make their job better for them. Let them know the intention is to help them succeed at work. Even if they have received past warnings about their behaviour, as discussed in the second post in this series, they still need to know that your intention is to help them succeed at work.

  4. Be prepared for an open and controlled discussion. Your focus should be on talking about the psychological demands of the job so that you can determine if there may be a need for accommodation. If the psychological demands of the job have not been previously assessed, you can take this opportunity to begin that process.

  5. If there is a need for accommodation, you may be able to work something out. You need to find out what the worker’s physical, psychological, psycho-social abilities and limitations are. Do not just focus on their mental illness in isolation of the whole person. Mental illness is seldom the only condition involved. This is taking a more holistic and integrated approach. You can start by simply asking them. Note that you are not asking them for details about their health – only about their abilities and limitations with the intent of accommodation.

  6. You may need to get information about the worker’s abilities and limitations from their health care provider. You should use an appropriate form and a cover letter to send with the worker to complete. Your organization may need to cover the cost.

  7. Make sure to track their progress and document everything.

If you would like to learn more about how to accommodate workers with mental illness or you need help to identify psychological and psychosocial job demands, I would be happy to help you.

Visit www.halehealthandsafety.com/services for more information. ■


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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