Employers Face Obstacles in Helping Employees With Mental Health Problems

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By Genevieve Douglas

Sept. 25 --While most employers offer employee assistance programs, the services continue to be under-used by workers due to the stigma mental illness carries. Creating a workplace culture that reduces that stigma and allows employees to seek help for mental health problems will greatly benefit both the employees in need of EAP services and their organization, according to sources in the mental health and disability fields.

Participation in wellness plans in general “is still very, very low,” Terri Rhodes, executive director of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 23. “We have seen that with smoking cessation programs [and] weight loss programs,” she said.

“So when we talk about mental health,” she said, “it's difficult” to get employees to admit they need help, Rhodes said.

While there is still a certain amount of distrust of EAPs, Rhodes said, some employers have seen increased use of EAP services when they combine the assistance program with other offerings, such as legal and financial services, she noted.

“When employees do use EAP services, there are much better results” in stress management, anxiety management and other mental health issues, Rhodes said.

'Notice and Respond'

One major responsibility for everyone in the workplace is to “notice and respond” to any mental health concerns, Wendy Strobel, director of the Northeast ADA Center, based at Cornell University's Employment & Disability Institute, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 23. Employers should encourage work-life balance, offer wellness programs and encourage employees to use them, she recommended.

“Our society has created some stigma around talking to a counselor, but there's nothing wrong with talking to someone about your problems,” Strobel said. Taking the stigma out of therapy can help employees keep from feeling different or being scared of discrimination if they do seek that support, she said. “We should create a culture where it's OK for people to ask for the help that they need,” she said.

“The bottom line is that a quarter of the U.S. population will have some sort of diagnosable mental illness in any given year,” Strobel added.

ADA Issues

Employers and human resources professionals will be best served by being up front with employees when they are exhibiting behaviors suggesting mental illness, Maura Kelley, director of the Mental Health Peer Connection at Western New York Independent Living Inc. in Buffalo, N.Y., told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 24.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are generally prohibited from inquiring into the nature and extent of employees' disabilities, unless the inquiries are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

For example, Strobel said, if someone is having an issue where he is turning reports in late, instead of saying “you seem really stressed,” managers should say “I notice that you are turning in reports late” and ask what they can do to support the employee.

Wellness program health assessments offered by employers are a good opportunity to screen for anxiety, depression, and other stressors, because they are often used during the employee benefits enrollment process, Rhodes said.

Crisis Management Teams

When it comes to situations like the recent mass shooting at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, recognizing the signs of mental illness is extremely important, Jeff Slotnick, founder of security consulting firm OR3M LLC, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 24.

Employers must make sure that they have a well established, well trained company crisis response team, so that when there is an employee in crisis, the employer is able to “get ahead of the event,” Slotnick, who is also the chief operating officer and chairman of the ASIS International Physical Security Council in Alexandria, Va., said. Part of the importance of maintaining a crisis management team is having people who are trained in threat assessment, he said. The crisis management team would be made up of company primary staff, led by HR or a chief security officer. Part of the team's purpose is to identify who is a threat, and if there is an opportunity for workplace violence, Slotnick said. This duty can also be contracted out to mental health professionals, he added.

Employers should offer employees training so that they can recognize a co-worker in crisis, Slotnick recommended. An employee going through a divorce or a workplace romance is in the type of situation ripe for a potential threat, he said.

“This situation in the Navy Yard, the signs were there and the information was shared, but it was ignored,” Slotnick said.

Ultimately, HR and employers have to create a culture and a corporation where communication can flow freely not just in regard to crisis, but all the time, Slotnick said. “They have to be available for their employees when their employees need them,” he said. “Being proactive certainly helps.”