Business owners struggle to help workers with emotional issues
NEW YORK – An employee is severely depressed and unable to complete a task. Or has mood swings and outbursts, unnerving colleagues and disrupting the workplace. These are some of the hardest situations small business owners and managers can face.
John Crossman has had employees at his commercial real estate company whose personal problems made it hard for them get work done. He’s sympathetic, because he’s struggled with depression and sought counseling in the past.
When he sees an employee in emotional distress, he asks, “Is there something we can do to be helpful?” At the same time, “You have to decide, what business boundary are you going to put up,” says Crossman, whose eponymous company is based in Orlando, Florida.
Small business owners juggle competing concerns when they’re dealing with employees’ mental health issues, and it can be particularly difficult for the many owners who don’t have a dedicated human resources staff. They may be worried on a personal level about a troubled staffer’s well-being, but they also have a business to run.
If employees cannot get their work done properly or on time, revenue can suffer. In cases where a staffer has angry outbursts, co-workers might complain of a hostile work environment or might quit. If staffers alienate customers or vendors, an owner will have to repair the relationships.
Legal concerns: Owners also must comply with federal, state and local laws. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies to companies with 15 or more employees, prohibits discrimination against workers with disabilities including mental illness and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to help staffers work. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical conditions including mental illness, applies to companies with 50 or more employees. Some state laws offer employees even more protection. And workers who feel discriminated against because of emotional issues might file charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At Maple Holistics’ warehouse, one worker suffered from severe social anxiety. He couldn’t always make it into work on time, and he didn’t communicate well with his nine co-workers. Managers at the Farmingdale, New Jersey-based company that manufactures maple food and personal care products knew they had to make accommodations.
“I knew he was not necessarily going to make it in from 9 to 5 every day,” marketing manager Craig Eckersley says. “I was never critical because I knew it was something he had to deal with.”
The staffer, who worked on an hourly basis, wasn’t paid for the time he missed. But he also wasn’t disciplined.
Eckersley and other Maple Holistics bosses helped other staffers understand that their co-worker needed compassion. While some initially asked, “What’s up with this guy?” they grew to welcome him.
“He carved out his niche and people got to work well with him,” Eckersley says.
‘So many broken people’: Crossman believes helping a staffer in trouble will help his company as well. In one case, an employee was struggling to cope after being served with divorce papers in the office. Crossman suggested the man take time off, and he did. When another employee had emotional problems, Crossman persuaded her to start working with the counselor he had seen, and when she couldn’t afford the sessions, he paid part of the cost.
Crossman sees dealing with troubled staffers as a fact of life as a business owner.
“We live in a world where there are so many broken people,” he says.
Some owners might want an emotionally troubled staffer to seek treatment. But the laws about medical and mental conditions also protect staffers’ privacy. So a boss can’t tell an employee, “You’re having emotional problems and you have to see a therapist,” or ask if they’re on medication.
“But if the employee says, I’ve got depression, or I’ve got bipolar personality disorder, whatever the case is, the employer would be able to have a dialogue with the employee and say, ‘OK, what can we do to help you?’” says Jonathan Yarbrough, an employment law attorney with Constangy Brooks Smith Prophete in Asheville, North Carolina. Once employers are aware of workers’ medical conditions, bosses can be required to make some accommodations for them. The answer may be that an emotionally troubled staffer needs a schedule change or to have time away from work to see a mental health provider.
Hostile workplace? But owners must also address any impact that staffers’ behavioral issues have on co-workers, says Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO, an HR provider based in Hollywood, Florida.
“An employer has an absolute obligation to provide a workplace that is safe for other employees and to provide a workplace that is not a hostile working environment. Those two things trump everything,” Starkman says.
Owners should get advice from an HR professional or employment law attorney on how to address a staffer’s emotional or mental problems, and to ensure the company is complying with federal, state and local laws.
Even if staffers acknowledge they’re suffering from an emotional problem or mental illness, if they’re not able to do their work despite the owners’ attempts to make accommodations, the company can consider disciplinary action, Starkman says.
“You have a right as an employer to have performance at an acceptable level,” he says.
In Britain, which also has laws to protect people with disabilities including emotional problems, Lisa Forde wants to be sure her 11 staffers don’t feel they’ll be judged harshly if they contend with emotional issues.
“We want people to be open. If they’re having a bad day and we know that, we can make allowances,” says Forde, owner of Dotty About Paper, a stationery and invitation company in Bridgnorth, Shropshire.
When one staffer was depressed and the company faced a project deadline, Forde structured the workload so the staffer had manageable portions each day. She also made sure other employees were willing to help.
Forde, who has been in business for 14 years, says it’s inevitable that she’ll deal with staffers’ emotional needs.
“We’ve seen a lot of things over time, and since we’re a small business, we’ve become much more aware of them,” she says.