As a leader, you need to understand the basics of mental health. Here are five steps to effectively deal with mental illness in the workplace.

With one in five U.S. adults expected to experience mental illness in a given year, according to the Society of Human Resource Management, it’s a safe assumption that someone you know will be affected. And that includes mental health in the workplace.

The stigma associated with mental health issues can be challenging to deal with in the workplace. Many people carry subconscious biases toward mental illness that can lead to serious workplace issues such as discrimination.

Additionally, those suffering from mental health issues in the workplace might choose to keep their personal challenges to themselves out of fear of being labeled weak or incompetent to perform their job duties – which can stand in the way of them seeking help.

But the truth is that mental illness is no different than any other illness and should be treated as such.

Here are five steps you can take to effectively deal with mental health in the workplace.

1. Educate your workforce

The number of people who will experience mental illness – which can be anything from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia – in their lifetime is more common than you may think.

Here are some important mental health statistics on adults in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • 1 in 5 (or 43.8 million) experience mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 25 (or 10 million) experience a serious mental illness.
  • 1 in 100 (or 2.4 million) live with schizophrenia.
  • 2.6 percent (or 6.1 million) have bipolar disorder.
  • 6.9 percent (or 16 million) suffer from severe depression.
  • 18.1 percent (or 42 million) live with anxiety disorder.
  • 90 percent of those who die from suicide have an underlying mental illness.

When you consider these numbers, chances are likely that someone in your workforce may be suffering from mental health issues. If that’s the case, it has the potential to not only affect the employee in question – but also your business.

There are subtle signs you can watch for to identify an employee dealing with mental illness in the workplace:

  1. They’re more likely to miss work
  2. May lack efficiency
  3. There are gaps in their productivity
  4. Can have strained interpersonal relationships with coworkers.

By helping your employees understand that mental health issues are not uncommon, and that they are treatable, you can cultivate an accepting environment that reduces the stigma and minimizes the effects.

2. Talk openly

Managers and employees who are educated on how mental health issues can affect the workplace will be better prepared to offer help, follow wise protocol and avoid developing stigmatizing prejudices.

Here are 6 proactive ways to address mental illness in the workplace:

  • Offer lunch-and-learn programs on the facts about mental health.
  • Establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides counseling and mental health support, and make sure your employees know about it and how to use it.
  • Train managers on how to spot signs of stress, fatigue, anxiety or depression.
  • Have an open-door policy for employees to share when they’re going through a difficult time at home or are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Work with managers on how to help their employees balance their workloads and embrace a healthy work-life balance.
  • Include information on how to deal with mental illness in the workplace in your employee handbook.

3. Treat it as any other illness or health concern

We’re all aware that we have choices when it comes to our health. To proactively protect ourselves, we’re consistently encouraged to get free flu shots, stop smoking, eat healthy – the list goes on and on. Mental health and wellness should be no different.

It’s important to be proactive for mental wellness, too. By addressing mental health in the workplace as you would any other health issue, you can help open the door to productive solutions. Talking openly about commonplace mental health issues is an important part of a healthy work environment. Don’t sweep it under the rug.

Here are some things to consider:

  • People who suffer from mental illness are no different from those who face any other health condition, such as cancer or heart disease.
  • Many types of mental health issues are brought on by challenging life events and are not permanent.
  • Employers who are knowledgeable and open with their employees about difficult issues, create an atmosphere of trust (which ultimately leads to happier employees and greater productivity).
  • Businesses that encourage work-life balance, and make it a priority, not only reduce the risk of employee burnout but also experience lower turnover rates with fewer sick days reported.

4. Don’t make assumptions

Stress can manifest in many different ways, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions about someone’s mental health in the workplace. If you are concerned about an employee or peer, it’s best to start with an honest conversation without making assumptions or labeling the behavior.

It is important to be direct and upfront. Be specific and to the point.

For example, you might say, “I noticed you yelled at Mary during the meeting and left the room abruptly. Is there something going on that you can tell me about?”

A good starting point is to suggest they ask themselves these questions:

  • What is causing my stress?
  • Do I feel that it is temporary?
  • Do I need to ask for a change in my workload or schedule?
  • Where is this coming from?
  • Should I seek help?

If they indicate that they need additional help, be open to their suggestions about what they need. Be supportive and nonjudgmental. Let them know there are resources to help them, and put them in contact with your HR professional or EAP. Remember that mental health issues are to be kept confidential.

5. Create a culture of trust

Your employees are your greatest asset, and they need to know they’re valued and supported. Nothing communicates this better than creating a balanced culture where people feel that they matter.

When you have a strong company culture, you’ll foster an atmosphere of grace and mutual trust within your business that reinforces the importance of mental wellness and acceptance.

Employees who feel valued are more likely to have open, honest conversations and genuinely care about each other, their work and your business.

Here’s what you can do to nurture a supportive company culture:

  • Have an open door policy.
  • Let your employees know how their work contributes to the greater good of your business.
  • Recognize people for their unique accomplishments.
  • Don’t tolerate gossip, including name calling.
  • Be trustworthy.
  • Develop a mission statement that supports and values your employees as your number-one asset.
  • Communicate and reinforce your culture regularly.
  • Realize your words are powerful; they should be intentional and well-thought-out.
  • Demonstrate your culture from the top – lead by example.

We all face difficult times in life and could encounter mental health issues at any time. Being proactive and making sure your employees have the support they need at work can be a big part of their successful recovery.

For more tips on how to support your employees and their well-being, download our free Insperity magazine, The Insperity guide to employee benefits.