Teresa said, “Patricia, I would love to read some of your work on dealing with employees who are controlling, easily agitated and off the wall! It seems like my co-worker wants to get even with me for nothing. She starts yelling even if I dare to identify areas that could easily be improved. What are some strategies to deal with this loony, crazy woman!?
Prevalence of Mental Illness in the Workplace
First, let us redefine loony and crazy. Teresa’s co-worker is probably living with an undiagnosed mental illness. Mental illness impairs a person’s capacity to function in a normal and often safe manner.
Bill Eddy is an American lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He observed that people with four personality disorders are increasingly found in the workplace. Plus they more often to get involved in legal battles. He sites in his book, High Conflict People in Legal Disputes:
Twenty-five million North Americans have a mental disorder. Most of them are unaware they have a mental illness.
Another thirty million people have traits or tendencies of a mental illness.
The reality is Teresa and most of us have a high probability of working with someone with a mental illness. Being human we are all at risk of developing a mental health problem.
The Canadian Mental Health Association reports:
- One Canadian in 3 will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.
- 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
- About 1% of Canadians will experience bipolar disorder (or “manic depression”).
- Schizophrenia affects 1% of the Canadian population.
- Anxiety disorders affect 5% of the household population, causing mild to severe impairment.
Mental Illness Defined
A Mental Health Problem is a general term used to include a range of mental disorders but does not induce a diagnosis. Most us have had a bout of feeling depressed or anxious. We might have called in sick. I took the well researched Mental Health First Aid program developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. There I heard:
Seventy percent of the cost of unemployment insurance is due to mental health issues . . . In Canada one person in five will experience some problem with their mental health in the course of a year.
A Mental Illness or Disorder can develop when the brain triggers constant feelings of depression or anxiety. It might require us to take a year or more leave of absence. We see our doctor and receive some kind of Mental Illness diagnoses. We are not functioning normally! Mental Disorders include Clinical Depression, Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Eating Disorder. Fortunately, unlike in my Dad’s time, after returning from World War II with undiagnosed PTSD, effective treatments are now available.
Personality Disorders are the most problematic. People who live with these disorders have a distorted sense of themselves and others. Social interactions are strained. Personality disorders include Schizophrenia, Bi-polar Disorder, Anti-Social Disorder, Borderline Personality, and the infamous, difficult to work with, Narcissistic Personality.
Mental Illness in the Workplace
Most people with a mental illness, are unaware they are affected. And usually so are their co-workers and management. Awareness and mental health literacy in the workplace is a growing and needed trend.
Fortunately, we have organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association. They inform the public and help those struggling to find appropriate support. Here is an excerpt from the CMHA website:
Mental illnesses can take many forms, just as physical illnesses do. Mental illnesses are still feared and misunderstood by many people, but the fear will disappear as people learn more about them . . . all mental illnesses can be treated.
Just as we can be physically ill, our brains can be mentally ill!
Good News About Mental Illness
My friend, Elizabeth Anderson, lives with, paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. In her award winning book, Being Mentally Healthy (in spite of a mental illness) she describes the steps she uses to help her stay stable. Elizabeth is committed to her mental wellness. She, and her wonderful husband, control her environment and keep a close watch on her medication.
Elizabeth functions day by day with her disorders. She recently used her body of work to create a coloring book. In-between her rigorous self care routine, she takes the next step and next step towards her life and business goals.
Elizabeth is an inspiration. Yet there are many others with a mental illness disorder who are, quite frankly, distressing to be around; that is when they are struggling with active symptoms. At work you may feel baffled by an employee’s dysfunctional behavior. Consider interfacing with him or her as if they have an undiagnosed mental health problem or mental illness.
Supporting the Undiagnosed
In the Mental Health First Aid program I read this statistic:
Seven out of 10 people who live with mental illness are at work.
Scary, if they are undiagnosed and unaware! You may witness unprovoked rage, panic attacks, signs of addiction, absenteeism, lying, verbal non-responsiveness, or unreasonable blaming.
Signing up for a How to Deal with Difficult People workshop will result in poor return on investment (ROI). That is, unless the content includes awareness of mental health issues. If you are aware, you are the one with the capacity to change.
Workplace leaders would benefit from participating in the Mental Health First Aid program. Even better, would be if workplaces hosted an onsite program. Trained facilitators deliver the content, which includes current research and support processes.
Support a Coworker with a Mental Health Problem
Here are some ways to interact with co-workers who show signs of a mental health problem.
- 1. Assess the risk of harm to self. If you suspect suicide inform your superior and/or call the police.
- Listen with soft eyes and non-judgment.
- Breathe. Detach yourself emotionally, if you can.
- Remember their behaviors are unconscious.
- Talk to yourself. Detach from the other person’s stress. Internally say to yourself, “This is about him (or her).”
- Acknowledge strengths and constructive behavior when possible.
- Calmly educate them about the consequences of their thinking and actions. Talk about mental health and mental illness.
- Encourage appropriate professional help.
- Speak and act as respectfully as possible.
- Throw in a dash of compassion.
For Mental Illness or Personality Disorders
- Record disruptive behaviors. Yes, write them down.
- Use the above strategies.
- If possible try to educate him or her about mental illness.
- Encourage professional help!
- If she becomes defensive or attacking, have a prepared boundary statement ready to deliver.
- If she shows no sign of awareness, willing to seek help, or to making changes, speak to upper management.
- If you are in a position to discharge the employee, do so with care. A person with severe, mental illness may need a dismal to jolt them out of their fog. It might actually help them get help. Plus, it may save your team’s morale. Ignored mental illness can bring everyone down.
Practice Self Care
One final thought; Meredith Brooks once said, “I have a lot of survivor instincts, and I know when to quit.” If the dysfunctional situation continues, you may be at risk. Notice your own stress levels. We don’t want you to develop a mental health problem as well. Look after yourself!
There is a difference between participating in the stigma of mental illness and tolerating verbal or emotional abuse from anyone. both are dysfunctional. The first is abusive to those living with mental illness. The latter is self-destructive. Consider seeking some mental health support for yourself. It can always be strengthened. Yes, look after yourself!
You can go to upper management with the idea that you deserve better. Request the situation be addressed. If that fails you could request a transfer. If nothing improves, be prepared to find alternative work. Look for a supportive workplace that has an understanding the importance of employee mental health. Mental health at work does happen magically. Good practices or even a Mental Health Policy will be in place. Work where your well-being is valued and protected. You owe it to yourself and those who love you.
Self-care is crucial for those with a mental illness, for those struggling with an undiagnosed condition, and for the rest of us. Just like dear Elizabeth Anderson, commit to being mentally healthy!