How can I approach an employee?

You may see behavior or performance signs that suggest an employee has a mental health problem. As an employer (or a manager or supervisor) you have a responsibility both to the individual and the organization to take action if you suspect that this is the case. You may be able to provide the employee with an opportunity to get the supports, professional help, and workplace accommodation they need so that they can continue working productively. In most cases the best approach is to meet with the person privately to talk about your concerns about their work-related performance.

Below are suggestions for how you can:

Preparing for the meeting

Broaching the question of an employee’s health as it relates to work performance can be a delicate task, especially when mental health problems might be involved. It’s important to prepare for your meeting:

  • Find out what resources your organization can offer an employee who is in distress. Have this information at hand when you meet with the person.
  • Become familiar with your organization’s accommodation policies and processes.
  • Spend some time looking into the basics of mental health and illness before you talk with the employee. Misunderstanding and fear are the greatest barriers people face in dealing with a mental health problem; be aware of the possibility that your own misconceptions and fears might interfere with your ability to respond appropriately. Your employee might also benefit from good information. They may not understand what is happening or think that mental illness is something they should be able to fix on their own.
  • Think about how you can use your skills as a manager to help make the person feel safe and comfortable in the meeting. If the employee is dealing with a mental health problem you will want to minimize their stress – not contribute to it. In addressing the performance issues, you can be honest, upfront, professional and caring in your approach.
  • Think about the person’s strong points and contributions that they have made. It will be important to talk about the ways in which the employee is valued before raising areas of concern.
  • Consider open questions that will encourage an employee to request support or accommodation. At the same time, remember that your job is not to probe into an employee’s personal life, to diagnose a problem, or to act as their counselor. Be prepared for the possibility that, while you may be opening a door to offer help, the employee may choose not to walk through the doorway.

Talking with the employee

If the situation is serious enough that the loss of a job is imminent, it is important to be clear and document the meeting as a performance issue so there is no confusion.

Consider how well you know the employee. Some people will feel more comfortable if you treat the meeting as a performance review, focusing first on their strong points as a worker before addressing areas of concern. This format may make some people defensive, though, so you might begin by stating that you are concerned about the employee, then state reasons for your concern.

In either case, assure the employee that you intend to work with them to help them get back on track or get the supports they may need. If you can create an atmosphere in which the person feels safe and comfortable, and let them know that what you discuss with respect to health matters is confidential, they may feel more open to talking to you.

Before assuring an employee that their information will be kept confidential, however, make sure you know what the company policy is, who you have to share the information with and in what form. Have a copy of the company policy available for the employee.

It is important that you:

  • Approach your concern as a workplace performance issue.
  • Raise the possibility of providing accommodations if needed.
  • Provide access to an Employee Assistance Program or referral to community services.
  • Assure the employee that meetings with an EAP provider are confidential.
  • Set a time to meet again to review the employee’s performance.
  • Document this meeting fully.

But there are some things you should not say or do:

  • Don’t offer a pep talk.
  • Don’t be accusatory.
  • Don’t say “I’ve been there” unless you have been there. You may not understand or relate to a mental illness, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering help.
  • Don’t try to give a name to the underlying issue. Even if you suspect a particular illness or problem, focus on how the employee’s behaviour is concerning you and how you want to help them improve.
  • If you learn that a specific illness is causing the behaviour, don’t ask what “caused” the illness. Focus on solutions.

Your employee may not know, or may refuse to acknowledge, that they have a mental health problem. In that case, there may be little you can do to help them. At this point, focusing on work performance is the best approach.

Follow-up

Your organization’s involvement doesn’t end with this meeting. You’ll want to follow-up with the employee, or designate someone who can follow-up on your behalf.

Keep your notes on the meeting in a secure location. A locked filing cabinet and password-protected computers are key to maintaining your employee’s confidentiality.

To provide appropriate accommodation, you will need to know:

  • If there are any functional limitations that could affect the person’s ability to carry out the essential duties of their job.
  • What accommodations would enable them to continue to do their job effectively.

The employee may not disclose a problem to you, but may seek help from the EAP provider or from a community service provider (such as a doctor, psychologist, or counselor). After receiving professional help, the employee might decide to put in a request for workplace accommodation.

If the employee’s performance has not improved by the time you meet again after the designated period, and there has been no request for accommodation or leave, it would be appropriate only at that point to consider disciplinary action.

Be sure you and the employee understand the employer’s obligations to provide accommodation. If there is a collective agreement in place, be familiar with the terms of the collective agreement. If it would interfere with accommodation, make sure it is clear what steps can be taken to accommodate the employee.

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