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mental illness

On May 23, 2003, John Ponsi, a teacher at Cliffside Park High School, was unexpectedly called into the principal’s office for a meeting with two students, who accused him of making racial and lewd remarks earlier that week. Another teacher at the same meeting accused Ponsi of pushing her. Four days later, the Board of Education notified Ponsi that he was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an investigation and psychological examination.

However, no investigation was conducted. Ponsi was referred to a psychiatrist by his physician due to the depression and anxiety resulting from the accusations and suspension. In September 2003, Ponsi was also evaluated by Dr. Meyerhoff, a psychiatrist appointed by the school board, who concluded that Ponsi was unable to teach for the foreseeable future. As a result of that examination, the Board notified Ponsi that he was ineligible to teach until he provided proof of recovery and that, if his absence exceeded two years, his employment would be terminated.

On January 31, 2005, Ponsi’s psychiatrist notified the school in writing that he was ready and able to return to teaching. Not convinced, the Board sent Ponsi back to Dr. Meyerhoff, their psychiatrist, who concluded that, while his mood disorder had abated, he was unfit to return to work because he showed no repentance or remorse over the alleged lewd and racial remarks, or the pushing incident. In essence, the Board’s psychiatrist accepted all the allegations against Mr. Ponsi as true (even though no investigation had been conducted) and, in fact, interpreted Mr. Ponsi’s assertion to the contrary as evidence of paranoid delusions. Concerned, the Board decided not to reinstate Mr. Ponsi.

Why Should I Believe You if You’re “Crazy?”

The true story cited above illustrates one of the challenges (and potential pitfalls) employers face when investigating psychiatric disability discrimination claims. All too often, the stigma of a mental illness clouds how that person is perceived, not only by managers who don’t understand psychiatric disorders but professionals who should know better. In other words, the complaint process itself becomes tainted by the underlying assumption that the complainant, because of his or her mental state, isn’t able to see reality clearly and is thus distorting what happened or misinterpreting the evidence.

Just Go See the Shrink and Get Yourself Straightened Out

Employers can also fall prey to the assumption that a trip to the psychiatrist’s office is all that is needed to get the complainant to see the light. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with offering up an employer’s EAP to a complainant who is dealing with the inevitable stress that filing a complaint generates. The devil, however, is in the details. Employers need to be clear that their recommendations or suggestions about psychiatric treatment aren’t interpreted as a thinly disguised version of blame-the-potential-victim.

They also need to be sure that the questions they ask in their investigation don’t cross the line into sensitive medical information or stray into unwarranted territory. Asking coworkers if they’ve ever felt that Bipolar Employee X was dangerous is understandable if you’re investigating alleged threats made by this employees; it’s completely inappropriate if you’re investigating complaints of cruel comments or teasing made to this employee.

The Bottom Line

Investigating psychiatric disability harassment or discrimination claims can be especially challenging, although not necessarily for the reason many of us assume they would be. Yes, some employees with psychiatric disabilities can be difficult complainants, but so can employees without a mental illness. In fact, in my experience, it’s the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness that gets in the way of a fair and objective investigation much more often than an irrational or “crazy” complainant.

However, employers must make sure that we are basing our employment decisions on the facts rather than beliefs and opinions, even when those beliefs and/or opinions come from mental health professionals. Employers who substitute professional opinions for investigations do so at their own peril. When you do need professional input, make sure you provide them with accurate and objective information is being provided.

Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof. Your previously decisive teamleader can’t seem to make the simplest decision. Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat. Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects. These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do? On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee. Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager have to deal with it? The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager: Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t. Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed. Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.” However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted. As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step: Recognizing how Depression Impacts Work

Most managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can. What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee. The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.
Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose. They are there to talk about work performance and behavior. They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. 1. Start with your concern for the employee. “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
    2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors. “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
    3. Acknowledge the change. “This isn’t like you. You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
    4. Offer them an olive branch. “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
    5. Be prepared to set limits. For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
    6. Refer to an E.A.P. Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
    7. Reinforce your concern. ” I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.”
    8. Reinforce the need to improve performance. “However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.”

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole. Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee. With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around. In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others. At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.

 

Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof. Your previously decisive team leader can’t seem to make the simplest decision. Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat. Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects. These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do? On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee. Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager haveto deal with it? The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager: Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t. Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed. Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.” However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association of 1,129 workers, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted. As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step: Recognizing how Depression Impacts WorkMost managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can. What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee. The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose. They are there to talk about work performance and behavior. They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. Start with your concern for the employee. “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
  2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors. “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
  3. Acknowledge the change. “This isn’t like you. You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
  4. Offer them an olive branch. “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
  5. Be prepared to set limits. For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
  6. Refer to an E.A.P. Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
  7. Reinforce your concern. I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.
  8. Reinforce the need to improve performance. However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole. Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee. With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around. In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others. At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.