When Mental Health Struggles Disguise Themselves as Work Struggles

A senior manager of sales called me and said, “Kayla, I need you. We have an employee screaming at her manager in a conference room and I don’t know how to diffuse this. Everyone can hear her.”

By the time I made it to the sales floor, the employee had stormed out and left for the day. 

After debriefing with the management team, I learned the following:

  • The employee was prone to these outbursts
  • People were afraid to approach the employee with feedback due to the outbursts
  • This outburst was caused by the manager asking the employee to verify that they reached out to an inbound lead 

The next day I checked to be sure the employee was present, and then sent them this instant message: 

“Hey Jane, I heard about what happened yesterday between you and your manager. I’m sorry things got so heated. I want to hear your side of the conversation so I can understand the whole situation. Would you be open to talking to me over lunch? I can order in and we can meet in a conference room off the sales floor.”

Jane agreed, and we met for a lunch I ordered for us. 

Jane explained how angry she became and how her manager was a “bad” manager. She complained about not being trusted and how she didn’t want to have to report on every detail of her job.

When I asked Jane how she would have handled the situation if she were in the manager’s shoes, Jane snapped. She raised her voice and started to say I was only on the manager’s side. She pushed her lunch away from her and started talking about issues that we hadn’t even covered. 

I sat quietly and listened; sometimes deescalation is as easy as shutting up. 

Eventually Jane stopped yelling. She looked at me, picked up her bag, and said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this.” There were tears in her eyes. And it became clear to me that Jane wasn’t upset about work, but something deeper. 

Mental-Health vs Work Struggles

At the start of my career, I had to attend a mental-health first-aid course that equipped me in ways I never knew I needed. Because of that training, and other mental-health experiences in the workplace, I was able to recognize that Jane was having mental-health struggles more than workplace struggles. And as much as I could help her workwise, I couldn’t help her mental health. 

Good employee relations is about knowing what you can and cannot control, and having plans for both scenarios.

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With good training and a lot of compassion in my back pocket, I was able to have a calm conversation with Jane about her mental health, our resources, and got her on a two-week leave. Today, Jane is still at that company and one of the highest selling reps on the team. 

Infusing Mental Health Into ER Practices

The following mental health statistics make it imperative that employee relations teams are prepared to incorporate mental-health awareness into their ER strategies:

So as you look at your ER strategies in 2022, including these simple tips can help ensure that you are addressing the mental health of your employees at every turn.

Find a training. Anyone handling employee relations should be equipped to manage mental-health struggles during ER cases. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing provides resources to find a class near you. Carve out the time and budget for this; you and your employees deserve it.

Find a crisis resource. Many companies I’ve worked for have invested in mental-health advocates who specialize in crisis response. These advocates can be contracted through outsourced companies and can be called upon when you feel an employee is in crisis. While it is our job to read situations, there are professionals who have training in mental-health crises and should be called upon when you identify a potential crisis. NAMI, the largest grassroots mental-health organization in the U.S., is a great place to find one of these individuals.

Get honest. There’s a high probability that someone on your employee relations team also battles mental illness. It’s important that you recognize this and provide mental health support to your own team. Get honest about these statistics, offer resources to your team, and honor their need for time off. If you do not purposely express how safe your ER team’s mental health is with you, they’ll never be honest when they need help — which will make it that much harder for them to help other employees in your workforce.

Kayla Moncayo is an HR professional with a specialty in employee relations. She has worked in government, non-profit, and private sectors around the globe and believes in a human-centered, vulnerability-based HR practice. Kayla’s expertise is in crisis management, investigations, data analysis, and stakeholder relations. When she isn’t practicing HR, she’s enjoying her family and her dog Ezra, advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ+ community, riding horses, and drinking lots of wine.

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