3 Ways to Support Employees With a Mental Illness

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Jan 14, 2019

Recently, I had the incredible honor of being on a panel with Katie Strong. Katie, a clinical psychologist, ran over 2,500 miles last year starting in Oregon and ending in Washington D.C. Katie supports veterans (and others) with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She ran to raise awareness about PTSD and the value of service dogs in aiding in symptom management and recovery.

I am also a person with multiple diagnosed mental illnesses who has worked professionally at multiple and increasing levels of responsibility for the last 15 years.

In prepping for my panel, I pulled together our own best practices, common accommodations, and key indicators of success to increase success for employees with mental illness. Three distinct but overlapping best practice areas emerged. For companies to support and help employees with mental illness and other types of disabilities, leaders, culture and accommodations provide the right combination for success.

Encourage an inclusive culture

Corporate culture creates an environment where your employees can (or cannot) bring their whole person to work, feel valued in their differences, and understand asking for help is not a weakness for the person, the employee, or the company.

We do see corporate cultures changing to focus on the value of inclusion of all types of disabilities. Companies with these cultural best practices are leading the way.

D & I is more than just race and gender — So many leaders are stuck in old school EO 11246 diversity and inclusion strategies. Do not get me wrong, we still have A LOT of work to do to create parity in gender and for people of color. Veterans, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ jobseekers and employees support traditional D/I goals. We create a new level of diversity to drive innovation and value in your company. If your D & I strategy isn’t inclusive your culture won’t be either.

Train early, often, and in multiple formats — In order to create an inclusive culture, training for leaders and non-leaders should include education to remove fear and bias, managing performance, and focusing on the talent value of employees with disabilities. Mental health awareness, managing accommodations, and performance management empower people leaders to effectively manage their teams. Mental health first aid training is also a valuable training consideration.

Lose the legalese – No one is going to feel safe disclosing their disability if they only hear about it wrapped in a cloak of fear and legalese. I understand the legalese must be available at the appropriate and required intervals, but legal requirements are not culture. In fact, non-discrimination statements may result in more discrimination.

The important role leaders have

Great leaders focus on creating the best possible environment and structure for their team to be successful. The foundation of this environment is driven by the corporate culture. They understand key differences in managing different personality types, learning styles, and have a clear picture of the value and opportunities each player brings to the team. They also fully understand and embrace the critical value of a workload management, work/life balance, and mitigating stress through proactive management.

As I talked through my panel discussion with Katie, I recognized how many of the best practices we mentioned related to the direct relationship between leader and team. In hindsight, I can also see how my leaders past and present utilized these leadership skills to support me, as an employee with a disability.

Clear, concise communication – In today’s kinder, gentler corporate environment, we do a lot of work to get “buy-in.” During the “buy-in” process, we use A LOT of words, which often leave our employees completely in the dark about what it is we actually want them to do. For people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, and a variety of other cognitive disabilities, this communication style is not only problematic, but may very simply be a deal breaker.

By providing employees clear, concise communication through regular planned feedback sessions, written follow-up, and defined timelines, you are setting up all of your employees for success. For your employees with disabilities, you are providing the foundation for them to succeed. We can understand what you need, when you need it, and how you would like it delivered.

Feedback sessions should focus on your employees, not just their to-do list. By regularly providing an open line of communication to ensure employees clearly understand their strengths and their opportunities to develop, you can catch and correct performance issues before they become habits. Feedback sessions also give you a key insight into how your employee is managing stress, developing key relationships, and handling common workplace frustrations.

Learning styles — Strong leaders recognize employees have different learning styles and adjust accordingly. For people with mental illness and other cognitive disabilities, written instructions as a follow up to conversations (or vice versa) minimize issues with memory and attention. For others who are visual learners, written and verbal communication are useful after an activity has been demonstrated. If an employee is struggling with your communication style, try showing them what you would like them to do and then have them try it out a few times.

You may also look for cues of stress, strain, or even “checking out” when you are giving instruction to an employee. These can be indicators you may not be teaching them in the most conducive format to receive the information.

These cues paired with feedback sessions can help a leader identify when an employee may need a break, to take walk, or simply have a change of scenery so they can reset. This is especially true for someone like me who cannot focus on instruction when I am using all of my energy to stave off a panic attack. A five-minute breather can allow me to practice my symptom management strategies and reset my brain.

Eating the elephant — I think many of us can relate to being given a great opportunity or shot at a big impact project and then panicking because we have no idea where to start. Fortunately, I have had several leaders in my career who have shown me how to take that first bite of the elephant.

For people with cognitive disabilities, mental illness, and memory deficiencies, these types of activities – big or small – can be very stressful or impossible without support. Based on your employee’s strengths and development trajectory, there are a variety of ways to “eat the elephant” – this approach works with employees with our without disabilities.

  • Help an employee identify how they process. Once I was able to understand how I process big projects and break them into high level pieces, I can take almost anything and break it down further. Others may need to talk it through with a knowledgeable ear, to process the necessary steps/tasks in a project or process.
  • Provide an example or break it down for them. For some, the mind can replicate examples of process or steps, but cannot create them on their own. By providing employees with a clear set of objectives within a project/process, you provide several smaller tasks/projects that becomes instantly manageable. For employees with disabilities, this clarity and structure gives autonomy with clear instruction. Some will thrive under tight deadlines and others will produce great work within a flexible timeline.
  • Break it all the way down. For some whose disabilities prevent them from breaking large projects into sub-projects, outline it for them and provide clear expectations and timelines for completion, including utilizing memory aids and calendar reminders.

Best practice accommodations

Best practices in accommodations for supporting mental health are based in flexibility, transparency, and managing environment.

  • Flexibility creates opportunity for employees to manage symptoms and their severity without losing productivity. Examples of flexible accommodations include more frequent breaks, the opportunity to work at home, flexible start and end times, and flexible due dates on less urgent work.
  • Transparency reduces stress and anxiety about the unknown. It also provides clear structure for managing performance and how to leverage supports. Examples of transparency accommodations are clear understanding of expectations, clear communication (written and verbal) of assignments, policies and processes for meeting goals.
  • Environment. Some mental illnesses can have environmental triggers that exacerbate or launch symptoms. For me, being overly hot or in a room I cannot easily exit triggers high anxiety. Accommodation examples include arranging the workspace to ensure view of entry/exits, noise-canceling headphones, breaks during meetings, or rooms with windows.

We all take pride

On a personal note, my career and my leaders have saved me. Truth be told, through a period of about two years, the ability to work and provide for my family got me through the darkest periods of my mental illness.

As Americans, we are what we do. We take pride in contributing to an organization, providing for our families, and living our version of the American dream. This is no less true for Americans with disabilities. Having a purpose every day, especially on the darkest days, can provide someone a lifeline and help get them out of the darkness and keep fighting.

While they never knew it, my leaders saved my life on more days than one and you can do the same.

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