A recent report by One Mind at Work, Trauma and Mental Health in the Workplace, concludes that:
“An overwhelming 80% of employers . . . report that their “most consequential” action during the pandemic has been to consider the physical safety and emotional health of employees in response to the crisis. More than ever, the pandemic has provided a space for employers to make active and intentional efforts to show they care, and that the workplace can be a place of healing and positivity.”
One of the most important roles for leaders of companies and organizations is to create a “SAFE” environment for their workforce:
- Secure – not threatened; supported, empathized with, trusted
- Acknowledged – not ignored; receiving attention and value
- Free – not coerced; given opportunities to learn, change, grow, speak, fail, and recover
- Empowered – not controlled; able to decide and act
The mental health team at Spring Health provides insight into how we respond to a mental health crisis to maintain a safe workplace. The following ideas are adapted from one of their blogs.
You walk into your office one morning to discover a coworker at his desk, sobbing hysterically. He hurls paper clips at anyone who comes near him. This is not only an atypical morning: you’re witnessing a mental health crisis in the workplace. As a leader, you need to take steps to handle the situation compassionately and professionally.
What is a mental health crisis?
Much like a chronic physical ailment, such as an injured knee, a mental health crisis is usually preceded by subtle signs: mood disturbances, social withdrawal, irregular expression of feelings, thought disturbances, and changes in behavior. These will likely increase in frequency and intensity.
Although everyone occasionally feels a little worn out, consistent withdrawal from pleasurable activities, significant changes in personality, and the inability to concentrate or speak sensically are all warning signs. Employees who display these symptoms over several weeks may be headed for a crisis.
Once it has manifested, a mental health crisis can be disruptive to the workplace. It is essential to remain calm and compassionate in these situations. Your first impulse is to seek professional care immediately.
Why do mental health crises happen in the workplace?
The circumstances that can trigger a mental health crisis in one person will be slightly different than the triggers for another person. There are a few work-related situations that tend to cause mental health problems regardless of the coworker’s personality.
Most of these situations stem from a feeling of isolation or neglect. Worries about a task or project, a sense of being misunderstood by coworkers or supervisors, the effects of perceived or actual discrimination, or feeling bullied or lonely at work are strong predictors of a mental health crisis.
A mental health crisis may also occur because of factors outside the workplace. Dramatic changes in a personal relationship, a significant loss or grief, or exposure to violence or trauma can prompt a mental health crisis, even if the work environment itself doesn’t have any significant stressors.
Preventing a mental health crisis in the workplace
Preventing a crisis requires understanding how to manage mental illness at work, which relies on the substance of your relationships with your coworkers.
Openly acknowledging that employees may need mental health care, especially during universally difficult times, may seem like a simple step. Normalizing discussions about mental health will encourage employees to seek you out and discuss any problems they may be having that could affect their performance.
By erasing shame around the issue and introducing open communication into the company culture, employees will feel better about requesting accommodations to reduce work-related stressors.
Whatever they choose to discuss, your role as a people leader is to facilitate connecting employees with the specific help they need. You are neither their physician nor their friend. By letting them know what legal and mental health care options are available to them, you are their invaluable professional advocate.
Handling a mental health crisis at work effectively
The first step is to assure the suffering employee that help is on the way. If the person is violent or you don’t feel safe in their presence, you shouldn’t stay in the same physical space:
- Remove yourself and others from their immediate location.
- Call for emergency help, such as 911, as soon as possible.
- Indicate the nature of the emergency, and describe the employee’s behavior in detail.
If they are not an immediate danger to you or others, start speaking to them with compassion. Don’t chastise or alienate the employee by arguing with them or telling them to “snap out of it.” Instead, express sympathy and understanding. Ask them non-judgmental questions: how long have they been feeling this way? Have they had any thoughts about suicide? Take the time to listen to their responses genuinely.
If the employee indicates that they have been contemplating suicide, this qualifies as a medical emergency: you need to call for professional help immediately. However, if they are not suicidal, calling a therapist who they have been working with (or a psychiatrist recommended by your health provider) is the next step.
The mental health professional can recommend specific actions based on the person’s behavior. In some cases, they may suggest that the employee immediately goes to the hospital for treatment. In other situations, they may schedule a future appointment. In all cases, stay close to the employee until a clear course of action emerges.
Supporting your organization with personalized mental healthcare, like Spring Health, is one of the best ways to navigate a crisis, reduce burnout and stress, and improve employee wellbeing.
Our webinar this month provides an understanding of trauma, how it affects your workforce, and how you can build a trauma-informed, “safe” workplace. You can access the recording and the slides on our website under the Resources tab.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen to our latest podcast, you can check it out here:
For the Heart of Your Business!
Q&A for this topic:
- Are you aware of the mental health needs of your workforce?
- Do you have a plan in place to address mental health crisis?
- What resources do you have for your employees to access care?
- Is your workplace “safe?” What could you do to alter the environment?