Healthy Employees, Healthy Business: How Employers Can Better Recognize Signs of Mental Illness in Its Staff

As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we are highlighting the prevalence of mental illness. If untreated and undetected, it can affect the workplace. What can employers do to better identify mental health concerns and accommodate them—particularly long-term diagnoses?

Each year, one in five adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experience mental illness, which includes depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders. Defined as a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, mental illness can be difficult to identify. With such a high prevalence of mental illness, there’s a high probability several employees in your workplace are among the 46.6 million who suffering. So how can employers create a system that detects when an employee seems to be struggling or better yet, foster an environment where employees can ask for help without feeling reprimanded?

Remove the stigma
Start by circulating information on mental illness; providing free, confidential mental-health screenings (which are also available for free online); or even holding a workshop on the company’s mental-health benefits and policies. Equally important is providing a list of available local resources one can turn to if they are struggling with their mental health and encouraging the use of paid-time-off days for mental health days.

Look for signs
Employers should also encourage staff—including HR teams, managers and other employees—to look for potential warning signs. Staff members are uniquely positioned to detect mental illness in their colleagues for several reasons. Adults spend a huge portion of their time at work, so changes in their productivity and demeanor would be easily noticed.

But companies must educate their staff to better recognize the signs. In a recent survey, only 16 percent of HR professionals said they are confident that managers are properly trained to identify employees who may be having a mental health issue.

Common signs that may indicate an employee is experiencing poor mental health include:

  • Negative changes in work habits
  • Changes in physical appearance
  • Changes in demeanor
  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness
  • Outbursts and mood swings

But these warning signs may be missed or overlooked if companies don’t raise awareness of mental illness or train employees to identify the symptoms—or possibly misinterpreted as a poor work ethic, which could lead to the employee’s wrongful termination.

It's crucial to recognize that there might be a reason for changes in behavior. By removing the stigma of mental illness and educating staff to recognize warning signs, companies can create a strong net to catch employees who may be struggling. And companies that prioritize the health of their staff are also promoting the overall health of their business.