Employee Well-Being: How to identify and manage mental health/substance abuse issues

A strategy for increasing employee well-being should include appropriate methods for handling employee mental illness and substance abuse problems. Managers and HR professionals must have knowledge and procedures in place to prevent, identify and manage these issues in order to facilitate a healthy, productive workplace. Here are some straightforward questions to ask yourself:

What warning signs should I look for?

It’s important to know how to recognize the warning signs of mental illness and substance abuse, because employees will often avoid mentioning these challenges for as long as possible. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health state that 43.6 million American adults experienced some type of mental illness in 2014. That number represents 18.1 percent of the American adult population. Drug abuse, which often coincides with mental illness, is also prevalent in society.

EHS Today points out that drug abuse currently costs employers $81 billion each year, and 70 percent of the nearly 15 million people who use illegal drugs today are employed. While alcohol is the most commonly abused substance, marijuana dependence affects more people than all other drugs combined. Other commonly used drugs, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, are cocaine, heroin, inhalants, LSD, MDMA, and prescription opioids.

Here are the most common signs that indicate an employee may be facing a mental health or substance abuse challenge:

  • Procrastination: People who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems have considerable difficulty in meeting their commitments. In the workplace, this shows up most frequently in the form of missed deadlines and incomplete work tasks.
  • Cognitive problems: Many types of mental illness affect a person’s memory and ability to learn. When an employee feels stressed because they can’t manage to carry out familiar work routines or learn how to handle new tasks, the stress itself creates additional cognitive difficulties.
  • Poor team morale: When one individual has trouble carrying out his or her necessary duties, a ripple effect often leads to frustration and discouragement throughout the person’s entire team. As the supervisor, you may at first perceive only that the affected worker isn’t pulling his or her own weight, and it’s important to be aware that this behavior may indicate a deeper problem.
  • Hypersensitivity: Workers struggling with mental illness may feel anxious or overstimulated by the normal work environment. As stresses mount, they often find themselves retreating from group activities or even physically moving their workspace to a more isolated location.
  • Frequent absences or unexplained disappearances: As people sink deeper into these debilitating conditions, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a steady presence in the workplace.
  • Physical symptoms: Red eyes and the smell of alcohol are obvious problem indicators. Excessive physical activity or restlessness, combined with a lack of productivity, often reflect stimulant usage. A noticeable deterioration in personal hygiene is also a key warning sign.

How do I manage the problem?

Once you notice an employee whose work is suffering from the effects of mental illness or substance abuse, the next step is knowing the best way to handle it. This can be an awkward topic to raise with the employee, because it’s not typically part of the daily conversation and it’s very personal.

What organizational steps should I take?

  • Provide resources to everyone: Before there are signs of any problems, gather a package of resource materials and information links for local organizations that provide help to people who struggle with these challenges. Make these available to every employee in the organization in such a way so they can be accessed privately. Some employees may find them helpful for family members, if not for themselves. Make sure management learns some basics, such as research regarding the biological foundations for alcoholism.
  • Meet with your lawyer: Another proactive step to take is for managers and HR professionals to gain a clear understanding of how state and federal laws address workplace addiction and mental health issues. Before grappling with individual cases, you need to know where the boundaries are: When do you need to treat mental illness as a form of disability that requires extra accommodations? When can you terminate someone due to substance abuse, and what are the preliminary steps that must be addressed first? When is drug testing legal?
  • Communicate clear HR and insurance information: As part of a universal information campaign, every employee should receive information from HR about what types of treatment options their insurance policy covers. Does the Family Medical Leave Act apply to absences from your company related to residential rehab or inpatient treatment? It should also be made clear throughout your organization that mental illness can be a protected form of disability.
  • Establish a written policy: With the assistance of your attorney, create a company-wide policy for handling issues of addiction and mental illness. Specific consequences for behaviors such as drinking on the job should be included in the policy.
  • Create an Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Employee assistance professionals can offer crisis management as well as support the ongoing health and well-being of your employee community. You can create such a program or contract with an EAP service provider to meet employees’ needs for counseling and other types of assistance.

What individual steps should I take?

  • Observe and document behavior of concern: If you become aware that an employee may be struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, it’s important to document what you notice. This is legally beneficial and it also provides you with specific talking points when you meet with the person.
  • Reach out to the employee: If you notice any of the warning signs, it’s important to reach out and have a private conversation with the employee. You may learn that there’s actually something else (such as a family crisis or a physical health issue) impinging on the person’s work, but it’s essential to inquire. During this conversation, you can direct the employee to the Employee Assistance Program or other resources that will be most appropriate.

Responding clearly and proactively to these challenging workplace issues is a critical element to optimizing your human capital.

Ryan Liabenow is the Health & Welfare Practice Leader for The Larkin Group. Reach him at (231) 947-8800 or rliabenow@larkingrp.com.