When you start a business, you think your worries will concern revenue numbers and profit margins. The most serious consideration you might have with employees is their ability to get the job done. While the workplace might feel separate from your employees' personal lives, those lines can blur--and your employee's life, relationships, and mental health can begin to erode as well.

It might be easy to ignore. That employee's just having a bad week. This employee tends to be closed off. It might seem like these types of things aren’t your problem, but I’m here to tell you they are. I learned the hard way.

My first company produced a PBS television show and had a very intense delivery schedule. We employed someone to run the graveyard shift, which required moving from machine to machine, pushing buttons with long periods of waiting in between--not a glamorous job, but important.

Every morning, this employee greeted me or my co-CEO. He seemed like a nice guy. However, other employees started complaining about him. As a startup, we didn’t have an HR professional, and since his behavior wasn't particularly problematic, we didn’t take these complaints seriously. Eventually, however, this employee's performance declined significantly, and I had no choice but to dismiss him.

The severity of the employee's situation wasn’t clear until a few months later, when I received a call from Fox News. He had allegedly killed his father and could not be found. I was his last employer.

In that one moment, I became acutely aware of a greater responsibility to ensure that the people I work with every day can get help when they need it. Here's what I learned:

  1. Mental health is never a joke. Your company and your employees will benefit from approaching mental health as a serious issue. Address employee concerns head-on.
  2. Good HR is not optional. Capable HR executives are needed in every organization, no matter the size. If you can't afford one full-time, reach out to people in your network who might be willing to offer assistance.
  3. A good work environment isn’t always the answer. People have their own personal and home-life challenges--some more severe than others. Don’t assume that because your company is a pleasant place to work (ours was) that everyone is happy.
  4. Dig in and get help. If you see something that concerns you or notice a trend in employee complaints, get a professional involved. It's a good idea to retain or at least create a relationship with an employee assistance consultant who can advise managers or offer referrals to employees. While your situation may not end in tragedy, you never know when you can make a big difference in your team members’ lives or prevent a problem.

It doesn't matter how remote the odds are that something like this will happen at your company. The point is that it could happen and does happen, and it's devastating. I regretted that I hadn't done more to help my co-worker, but by then, it was too late. Don't wait for tragedy to teach you these lessons.