Nance was asked by Mental Health Speaker, Drummer, and Best-Selling Author Mike Veny to give people practical tips for having mental health conversations at work while staying within the law. Below are her responses.
What legal issues should people be aware of before having mental health discussions at work?
If you’re an individual and don’t manage people in your workplace, your legal limitations are slightly different from your supervisors and managers. They are presumed to act on behalf of the employer when engaging with employees. You might be viewed as acting in your own self-interest.
You should still be mindful that mental health is as protected as physical health–and gender, gender identity, race, religion, and other topics in relationship to work. You might think you are being funny, but you might be creating a hostile work environment that can get you disciplined or fired.
If you manage people, you have to be especially mindful of your conversations about mental health in the workplace. Not only are you responsible for your own behavior, you are responsible for the behavior of the people you supervise. When you do not address discriminatory behavior and allow hostile work environments to occur, you can be disciplined, fired, or sued. So can your employer, because of your failure to act.
What are some simple action steps that leaders can take to prevent legal issues?
I like to call everyone into leadership, so I will not limit my answer to people with authority. We must all lead, from wherever we are, and here are some actions each of us can take:
- Learn to catch yourself and stop using terms, such as crazy, insane, and retarded, to describe situations. Expand your vocabulary and use words that are grammatically and factually accurate. Often, you can describe the same situation as difficult, challenging, frustrating, or something along these lines and relay the true reason it needs to be addressed. That’s far more effective and actionable.
- Stop playing amateur psychiatrist. Unless you are a licensed psychiatrist, you are not qualified to diagnose someone as narcissistic, bi-polar, depressed, or mentally ill. Labeling someone in this way is often a technique used to avoid responsibility for a relationship that is not working. Leaders take responsibility—and action toward better results. So, do that.
- Train others on appropriate behavior. You will want to work with your employer to create an approved program that meets legal and culture requirements, but leaders propose solutions. Reach out with your proposal. If you are met with resistance, get some coaching and keep standing for what you know is right. It takes time for us to develop the skills we need for uncomfortable discussions—because we often avoid them. Don’t do that; build your skill and your confidence.
What should employees keep in mind if they have a co-worker who is struggling with mental health challenges?
First, understand that you might never truly know if a co-worker is struggling with mental health challenges. Unless you are a very close friend, they probably won’t tell you about their diagnosis. Again, don’t try to diagnose them, unless you are licensed to do so and they have asked you to.
Second, if they do share this very confidential and private information with you, guard it from further disclosure. This co-worker trusts you and can use your support. Ask how they think you can best support them. Do they need to be reminded to take breaks? Do they need a sounding board when certain situations occur? Do they need you to watch for specific signs? Don’t see them as someone who is broken and that you have to fix. Empower them to be as strong, capable, and successful as possible.
Third, learn more about the diagnosis. Even if the co-worker doesn’t ask for specific support, certain diagnoses might have warning signs that you need to be aware of, so you can keep them, yourself, and your co-workers safe. If at any time you think someone poses an imminent threat to themselves or others, you must report your concern. This does not mean you can call security or the police whenever someone yelled at or scared you, but you do need to use good judgment when someone is making threats or jokes about causing harm. When in doubt, report it and ask for help. Also, ask for more training for yourself and your workplace.
Admittedly, I have worked with people who have struggled with mental health diagnoses, and I have been challenged by depression and post-traumatic stress. I have not always dealt with these as well as I would have liked, but that is why I have continued to educate myself. I invite others to do the same, as we’re all in this together, and there are probably more people around us than we realize who are doing their best to manage their mental health. Perhaps raising awareness will help them not do it so alone, which is part of the problem.
To read Mike’s complete article, click here.
For more tips on avoiding hostile work environments:
- Take the online course
- Read “Using Your Third Ear to Uncover Implicit Biases”
- Read “Biases I Didn’t Know I Once Had”
Want a do-it-yourself program?
Prefer a little more guidance?
Need one-to-one coaching?
Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. Her goal is to keep you out of court and build your conflict resolution skills so everyone has a better work experience. She helps managers and business owners have empowering conversations about emotionally-charged issues such as gender, race, religion, and disability. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018 & 2019), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards).