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Mental Illness in the Workplace - HR's role

In light of this week's tragic news about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I am re-posting a blog entry I wrote nearly 3 years ago. Sadly, not much has changed in how we are treating mental illness in the workplace today. To my HR colleagues I pose a challenge - are you championing your employees with mental illness? Are you reducing the stigma? Go to or to find resources to help with this very important part of our jobs.


As HR professionals we joke all the time about the diversity of our positions – from administrator and police officer to psychologist and social worker – each day brings us new challenges that often fall outside of our primary remit. For many of us it’s in our nature to take on these diverse roles with gusto regardless of our qualifications or interest. But it can get confusing and scary when we talk about mental illness in the workplace.

What is your role as an HR professional in handling this very serious issue?

Mental illness is the cause of numerous problems in the workplace from absenteeism and lost productivity to harassment and violence As these incidences continue to rise we must all have heightened sensitivity and be accountable for the wellbeing of our colleagues – “If you see something, say something”. But HR’s role should be more clearly defined.

Here are my thoughts on HR’s specific responsibilities:

Pay attention – as the eyes and ears of your organization you should be aware of what’s happening. However

you can’t be expected to see and hear everything. This brings me to my next point:

Educate your staff – many organizations are providing education on work / life balance, stress management and other behavioral health related topics like substance abuse. If you don’t have an EAP program consider getting one. There are a lot of great resources available to you. A couple to consider are The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Educate your managers - They know their staff better than you do and are engaging with them more often. Your job is to make sure they understand management best practices. Through regular performance communication and employee / manager meetings your managers should be able to tell if something seems off.

Here are some things they (and you) should be on the lookout for:

  • Newly onset punctuality or absenteeism problems

  • Rapid decline in performance

  • Emotional outbursts in the office

  • Extreme changes in behavior or demeanor

  • Withdrawal

Don’t be afraid – If you suspect something is going on with an employee it is HR’s job to address it. We’ve been trained in corporate America to shy away from getting too involved in our employees’ personal lives. But with blurred lines between work and life and the increased incidence of mental illness can you afford to not be involved? Employees with mental illness want to do a good job as much as anyone and providing them with the right support is part of our responsibility when we hire someone.

Ensure fair treatment – Even managers and employees with the best intentions can treat someone differently without even realizing it. We all bring biases and fears into the workplace and of course with the media attention it’s near impossible to not be concerned. HR’s role is to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all employees regardless of disability (mental illness qualifies under the ADA

Show compassion – “In the United States, 30 to 40 percent of the population experience mental health and substance use disorders at some point in their lives…” ( It is likely that all of us will either know someone affected or be affected ourselves during our lifetimes. We can help remove the stigma by supporting our employees and their families through trying times.

It is an increasingly scary world we live in and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. I hope this article helps my fellow HR professionals clarify their responsibilities when it comes to addressing this difficult issue.

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