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Ask HR: What Should I Do if An Employee Shows Signs of Mental Distress?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

I supervise a group of six employees at a logistics services company. I suspect one of my employees is showing signs of clinical anxiety. Should I approach them to address it? How can I support them?–Lisa

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I appreciate you wanting to support one of your employees, but I want to caution you to keep your focus on the employee's work and behavior and not try to "diagnose" them. I always recommend referring employees to trained medical professionals for health matters. And because of the stigma attached to mental health, which can discourage openness about mental health, leave it to the professionals.

Show support by being available to listen to your employee. If they share their struggle, encourage them to utilize an employee assistance program, use their time-off balances or take personal mental health days as needed.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you can make certain medical inquiries of employees in very limited situations. You should not ask employees about health conditions without having a reason considered "job related and consistent with business necessity." If your employee poses a direct threat to themselves or others, an employer could make a medical inquiry in that instance.  

If your employee's performance is not up to expectations, you may want to address their performance with them directly. However, if their behavior or conduct just seems "off," you can be less formal. See if the employee has all the tools or time frames needed to successfully complete their job duties.

If they disclose that they have a mental health condition, you should engage in the interactive process under the ADA. The interactive process can help determine if an accommodation is needed and if providing an accommodation is reasonable or causes an undue hardship on the business. An employee with a disability may still be held to the same performance expectations as employees without disabilities.

As a workplace leader, you can always address your team as a whole without singling out a specific individual. Emphasize in team meetings what resources are available to protect mental wellness, especially during periods of high stress. It can also help to talk about the steps you take to protect your own mental health. Workers often take cues from their leaders. So it is important for leaders to set the tone for what they want to see in the workplace.

Touch base frequently with all your employees to stay aware of their needs. Listening to them promotes openness, awareness and understanding. Prioritizing mental health not only protects your workers, but it also protects the workplace.

I witnessed a co-worker of mine be targeted with inappropriate sexual comments. However, she does not want to report it. Am I obligated to report what I have seen?–Sandra

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: It is understandable for your co-worker to be uncomfortable escalating or talking about experiencing sexual misconduct. However, showing concern and support can help them feel better about taking necessary action.

While there aren't any federal regulations requiring you to report inappropriate sexual conduct directed at co-workers, many employers have a workplace-harassment policy that covers sexual harassment and retaliation. I recommend you review your company's relevant policies. If you are required as a witness to report any kind of inappropriate conduct, then by all means do so.

However, if your company's policies don't require you to report it, you may want to consider your options and what is best for all involved. This could be very tricky especially when you want what's best for your co-worker and your workplace.

You could encourage your co-worker to consider speaking with the alleged harasser and let them know their comments were inappropriate. If you witnessed the harassing comments, and if you are comfortable and feel safe doing so, address the person who is inappropriately targeting your co-worker. Respectfully let them know you witnessed the behavior and make clear this behavior is inappropriate and not tolerable. Unfortunately, most of the time, behavior like this will not stop until someone steps up and says something.

If the inappropriate comments continue or there is other harassing behavior, explain to your co-worker that you aren't comfortable not saying anything to anyone. Encourage them to report it to HR or upper management and support them through the process by voicing your general concerns, even if they don't speak up.

Workers play a vital role in creating and protecting their workplace culture. Realistically, HR can't be everywhere and see everything. Neither can managers or senior leadership. So being intentional about what you want and, in this case, don't want in your workplace is important. Taking action to protect your co-workers and yourself is wholly appropriate. 


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