People Management and the Maintenance of Mental Wellness at Work
By Estelle Morrison, Director, LifeWorks Strategic Solutions
According to The Unheralded Business Crisis in Canada, “Human capital is people,
and the human mind, not our arms and legs, will do the heavy lifting in the global
information economy in order for business to become more competitive.” With the
increasing recognition that a healthy workforce – both emotionally and physically – is
integral to an organization’s success, people managers need to appreciate the
importance of their role in the maintenance of employee mental wellness and
productivity. An Employee Assistance Program can provide valuable support – both to
troubled employees and their managers – through suggested resources, counselling and
Today, more than 50 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the major OECD
economies is estimated to be knowledge-based. This dramatic change in the nature of
work demands that organizations prevent, recognize and address the impact of
stress/burnout, mental illness and substance abuse in the workplace – all of which are
on the rise, most notably among younger workers. Mental illness accounts for more than
15 per cent of the burden of disease in established market economies – more than that
caused by all cancers. In addition, according to the Global Business and Economic
Roundtable, only 25 per cent of those suffering from mental health issues seek help, and
just 6 per cent actually get properly treated.
With the emphasis on mental wellness and its direct connection to business success,
people managers are experiencing greater pressure to respond to the mental health
issues that can surface as noticeable behavioural changes or often as performance
difficulties. And yet, paradoxical as it may seem, managers are rarely trained to respond
to the emotional needs of their workforce.
In comes the EAP, which can provide support in the form of management
consultations. Management Consultants, who have specialized experience in work
issues, mental health, corporate and small business environments, as well as general
knowledge of HR related topics, often respond to calls initiated by a manager. While not
meant to replace or replicate HR or legal departments, a Management Consultant will
assess a caller’s unique circumstances and offer direction on how to handle the
problematic employee or workplace situation with respect for the organization’s internal
policies and programs. The consultant can support the manager in a variety of tasks:
Addressing performance deterioration
Addressing erratic or inappropriate expressions of feeling or behaviours
Dealing with excessive personal disclosures at work
Understanding what is and what is not a performance issue
Recognizing the symptoms of depression, addictions, stress or burnout
Assisting/ approaching the troubled employee or employee suffering from mental
Referring an employee to the EAP
The consultant will gather relevant information such as the presenting problem, the
employee’s work and behavioural history; performance management efforts to date;
impact or potential impact of the problem, as well as internal supports and strengths.
Together, the consultant and manager can determine if a suggested or mandated
referral to EAP is warranted once the information is explored.
The basics of effective intervention
Managers have a right and a responsibility to intervene promptly when personal issues
have an impact on the workplace. Failing to intervene can have damaging effects,
putting a troubled employee at risk for personal harm, physical ailments and ultimately,
job loss. Lack of action can also destroy a positive working environment, resulting in
lowered team productivity, poor morale, and even resentment towards the supervisor.
How can concerned supervisors balance their accountability for workplace effectiveness
and productivity with the right of employees to experience and work through personal
difficulties in their own way?
There are two main opportunities for managers to address employee mental wellness.
First, managers can offer support when observable and prolonged changes are noted in
an employee’s typical mood or disposition – even when these have not yet affected work
performance. It is appropriate for a manager to express concern at this point, while
remembering that people have a right to privacy and cannot be reprimanded for mood
alterations or behavioural changes that do not affect the workplace.
Intervening at this stage has important preventative benefits, potentially uncovering and
addressing professional or personal issues before they have an impact on work. During
this confidential discussion, managers should be prepared to:
listen with empathy or accept a response that the employee is not willing to
discuss the matter further;
offer concern for their well-being;
recommend resources; and,
promote and provide contact information for an EAP if appropriate (suggested
Suggested referrals, where the manager informs the employee about the EAP and how
the service can help, are particularly helpful since they offer distance from the
organization’s involvement in the referral process. While some employees will feel
greatly supported by a manager who calls the EAP on their behalf to begin the process,
others would rather not acknowledge their need for help and yet are comforted by
receiving the information and the concern from their manager.
Workplace Indicators – A Window on the Issue
The second opportunity for managers to address employee mental wellness arises from
the fact that they are often the first to notice problematic behavioural changes. A skilled
manager who identifies changes in work performance while expressing respectful
concern can help the individual to appreciate that their compromised mental state or life
challenges are now having a noticeable impact.
A manager’s action in addressing a troubled employee should always include
documentation of objective behaviours. These workplace indicators can point to
the existence of a mental health issue or substance issue, and typically fall into four
categories: lowered productivity and job efficiency, increased absenteeism, impaired
personal skills, and changes in physical appearance. (See table 1 for a list of workplace
indicators related to depression, stress/burnout and substance abuse.) Workplace
indicators should never lead to an assessment or diagnosis of a condition, but should be
cited as the foundation for the manager’s assessment of problematic workplace
behaviour and performance issues.
Prior to confronting the troubled employee, a manager should consult with their
organization’s Human Resources team and review related policies. The manager should
then initiate a face-to-face discussion with the employee, and in a caring but direct
report observed behavioural changes;
focus on safety and performance in an effort to correct poor work performance,
not personal issues or dependence;
pose open-ended questions to elicit in-depth responses and explanations;
lay out a clear performance management process with desired expectations and
recommend support and assessment from a qualified professional such as a
family physician, counsellor, or the EAP;
negotiate a fair, flexible working arrangement if necessary to accommodate
provide timeframes and next steps.
Mandated Referrals: The end of the line
Mandated referrals, those where the manager has referred the employee through a
formal process, should be reserved with the ‘last chance to change’ perspective. Ideally,
they should be used when the employee’s workplace performance has declined to the
point where strong disciplinary action or termination would be appropriate. The
mandated referral is seen as a final opportunity for the individual to address personal
concerns that may have impacted their performance, and should include the following:
message to employee (usually in written format) that the individual must contact
the EAP to avoid disciplinary action that would normally arise from their
"Release of Information" form to obtain confirmation that the individual has
contacted the EAP; and,
reinforcement that mandated referrals do not include releasing content that
reveals the individual’s personal situation. Confirming attendance and
compliance with recommendations is all that is required for a manager to
Some managers, with the best of intentions, try to use mandated referrals to push an
employee with noticeable needs into a helping situation despite the fact that there are no
performance issues. This can result in alienation of the employee from the manager,
confuse the manager role and mar the reputation of the EAP as a voluntary and
Confronting an employee can be an uncomfortable and challenging task, even for the
most experienced manager. However, when discussions are well-planned and
appropriately conducted, the management referral can serve as a strong source of
motivation for a troubled employee. EAP referrals, whether suggested or mandated, are
most successful when balanced between genuine care and holding the employee
accountable for workplace performance. Through the support of EAP Management
Consultants, supervisors can respond effectively to workplace indicators, clarify
workplace issues, confront a troubled employee, and develop action-oriented
performance management plans that effectively address these issues.
This article first appeared in Ceridian Canada’s e-newsletter, The Specialist, February 2007
Estelle Morrison is Director – LifeWorks Strategic Solutions, for Ceridian Canada's fullservice
EAP and work-life/wellness solution. This article is an adaptation of Ms.
Morrison's article originally published in Canadian HR Reporter.
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