Dealing with a distressed employee

The skills required for managing an employee with a mental health problem are the skills of good people management. While some knowledge about mental health problems and their signs and symptoms is valuable, you definitely don't need to be an expert.

As with many things, prevention and early intervention can help avoid situations in which employees become distressed. As part of the return-to-work process, do:

  • have regular work planning sessions, appraisals or informal chats to find out about any problems the employee may be having
  • use open questions to provide employees with opportunities to express concerns in their own way e.g. "How are thing going?", "Is there anything we can do to help?"
  • address any specific issues of concern as soon as possible to avoid things getting worse, particularly if work performance is a problem
  • keep discussions focused on work-related issues, e.g. ask "How is your concentration?" rather than "How is your depression?"
  • be realistic about what you can do to help
  • be clear about confidentiality and who will be told what
  • agree about how problems will be monitored
  • ensure that any hurtful gossip or bullying is dealt with promptly and effectively

Don't

  • ask intrusive questions or force the employee to disclose health issues
  • blame the person or make assumptions about whether their mental health problems are 'genuine'

Dealing with a distressed employee

Dealing with a distressed employee is difficult for many supervisors, whether or not the person has a mental health problem. The following suggestions can help with this process:

Do

  • try and stay calm. This benefits you and can also help the employee feel safe.
  • offer the employee the opportunity to meet in a private setting, or even outside work (e.g. in a cafe) if that is appropriate
  • offer the employee the opportunity to meet at another time if they would prefer that
  • ask if the employee would like to bring someone to support them. This could be a close colleague, friend or family member.
  • take time to listen to the employee and give them time to speak
  • make the employee aware that anything you discuss with them will be kept confidential, unless there is an immediate danger to them or to others in withholding that information
  • ask open questions about what is happening and how they are feeling
  • ask what you can do to help
  • be realistic about what you can do. Some problems might have immediate solutions while others might need a more long-term approach.
  • take enough time to consider what you might need to do if the problem is a complex one
  • offer the employee the opportunity to let you know about problems outside work but don't pressure them on this
  • let them know about possible sources of support within the organisation or outside (e.g. Employee Assistance Program (EAP), counsellors, beyondblue)
  • agree what will happen next and who will take action
  • be aware that someone who is very upset may not take in everything you say
  • be aware of when and from where you can obtain support to help you manage these issues
  • If a problem persists despite support then you should encourage the person to seek medical help from their GP or other health practitioner

In a very small number of cases problems may persist or may escalate to the point where you are concerned that the employee is a danger to themselves or others. See the section on Dealing with a mental health crisis at work for help with this.

Useful links

Mental Health First Aid guidelines project

Mental Health Works - Coaching a distressed employee