Mental health is a spectrum. Someone can have a mental health challenge that does not impact her job because she has learned to manage the condition. Unfortunately, when we hear the words mental health and workplace together, we conjure up images of someone exacting revenge and other unhealthy disruptive behaviors. In fact, it is statistically known that a person with a mental health condition is more likely to be harmed than to do harm. 

One out of four people are likely to be challenged with some form of mental illness that can range from Alzheimer’s diseaseto schizophrenia. None of these diseases are accompanied by a desire to exact death and destruction in the workplace. For the most part, your employee will have a disorder and not disclose her diagnosis, and for very good reasons, while maintaining positive behaviors and high levels of productivity.

But there are those instances where an employee may show signs of mental illness that are disruptive and counterproductive. Faced with dealing with someone who has a mental health challenge, there are a host of things a large corporation can do that small businesses may not have considered or simply do not have the resources to offer.

First and foremost for an employer, whether the enterprise is large or small, there is a legal obligation to provide a safe place for employees. You may find that there is a fine line between being supportive and invading an employee's privacy. This can make managing mental illness in the workplace a difficult proposition for an entrepreneur or small business owner. Here are some initial steps that you may want to consider as a small business when preparing your organization for an employee with mental health challenges:

Do Your Due Diligence

Conducting true due diligence before hiring someone is time well spent. Often people leave a trail of disruptive behaviors that gets overlooked. Once an employee is in the workplace you have inherited someone else's problem whether that person has a mental illness or not. 

Fact is, a third-party background check won't reveal whether an individual is toxic. Sure, you can learn about whether the applicant has a criminal record or where he has worked and for how long, but that's only part of the story, says Mike Esposito, an HR executive who has addressed this issue for years. As Mike suggests, what you really need to know requires a little digging around. Pick up the phone and get a sense of the person by speaking to colleagues or past employers--and skip HR, since they're trained to only share basic info, like name, dates of employment and so forth. Put in a little more effort in finding out whether that person plays well in the sand box or not. This could help you to avoid drama down the road.

Understand the Rights of Your Employee

The person has to be unable to do their job over time to warrant termination. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects an employee's job for 12 weeks. So if the employee suffers from a debilitating mental illness then the degree to which FMLA requires an employer to protect a job is based on a person's prognosis, how valuable that person's skills are, and the hardship of holding the job.

Then there is Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments (http://www.ada.gov/ada_title_I.htm).

Angelo Spinola of Littler Employment & Labor Law Solutions Worldwide says that someone who has a mental illness that would qualify for disability under the definition of the law cannot be terminated if they can perform the functions of their position. The company would need to accommodate the employee if they have a covered disability.

Address Values and Conduct

The patterns of behavior are usually the same so it's incumbent upon a good employer or progressive employer to identify warning signs of someone who is in trouble. When something has changed it would be beneficial for the employer to check in on their employee. Do you have a document that spells out your "code of conduct," providing a "road map" of sorts designed to assist employees understand the "rules of the road"? Or do you have a policy on respect in the workplace? What about a statement that speaks to your values or guiding principles? Nothing fancy, just something that lets employees know what's acceptable and what's not at a high level.

You simply want something in place that outlines what is acceptable so that there are no surprises whether a person has a mental health issue or not. If an employee demonstrates a disruptive behavior, you may ask if s/he is aware of, say, the company's code of conduct or respect policy while bringing the behavior to her attention. In short, you need something that clearly articulates your company's guiding principles and values.

Make Resolving the Issue a Partnership

According to Pam Beckerman, senior HR director of Jabian Consulting, when an employee is not performing there is a process of analysis--is it a training issue, coaching issue? Then you ask if something going is on that would cause me to refer them to a counselor. A manager should pull that employee aside and check in by finding out how they are doing and earnestly seeking to help via a counselor, Employee Assistance Program, or other resources.

When you speak with the employee make the conversation a fact-finding and problem-solving moment. Beckerman explains that her organization recommends that the employee participate in a specified treatment program based on their disorder and recurring problems. She adds that an employer should assume good will and good intent and try to find resources and the right support. Make sure that employees get the full benefit of medical coverage, i.e. short-term or long-term disability. It is the employer's responsibility to know whether policy provisions are applied legally and fairly and what other support might be useful. Primarily, just make sure the employee gets connected to the right resources.

These are some things to consider as an initial step in managing employees with mental health challenges. Next week, I will discuss the next steps that an employer or manager can take when problems have escalated.

Published on: Sep 2, 2015
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