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Mental health matters: What to do when your employees aren't OK

Nov. 11, 2022
Increasingly these days, employers are up against employees’ mental health concerns because they often affect job performance and workplace safety. Here's how to help if an employee is struggling.

Pay attention to any news source, talk to your friends, coworkers, or family members, and you will likely hear stories about the mental health concerns affecting people of all ages. It seems inescapable these days. Some studies indicate that we may be at the start of a global mental health crisis.

It seems inevitable that this will impact employers. Increasingly, employers are up against employees’ mental health concerns because they often affect job performance and workplace safety. As a result, employers are facing tough mental-health situations that they may have never dealt with before. Sometimes, this can even mean having to manage an employee’s suicidal ideation that is brought up at work.

What do you do if/when an employee is showing signs of suicidal ideation? What if an employee has threatened to hurt him- or herself? What are your responsibilities or obligations as an employer?

The following is some guidance, which can provide a framework for where to start. We encourage you to further educate yourself on this to be prepared if these situations come knocking on your door.

Learn the warning signs

Visit the National Institute of Mental Health website to get detailed information on the warning signs of suicide. This includes a quick-reference poster that can be downloaded.

Carefully evaluate the situation

Did you learn of this through direct communication with the employee, or was it secondhand? Did it appear to be an offhanded comment made “in jest,” or was it more serious? Was this the first instance, or has it happened multiple times? Have there been other signs indicating suicidal thoughts or tendencies?

Take appropriate action

Each situation is unique and may require a different response. This could range from educating an employee about the inappropriateness of making “jokes” about suicide to calling local authorities for help. The important part is to avoid jumping to conclusions, making rash decisions, or carelessly disregarding the individual employee’s situation.

Related reading:

Why it's time to deal with employee burnout

Building a practice that sparks joy

Educate yourself about applicable laws

There are federal, state, and local laws that may come into play for employers related to someone experiencing or expressing mental-health concerns or suicidal ideation. These laws include: privacy, disability, and leaves of absence. Each one can dictate how employers respond. Here are a few examples:

  • In talking with the employee, it would likely be unlawful to ask if they have had suicidal thoughts or inquire about their mental-health condition, diagnosis, treatment, etc.
  • Leave of absence laws may necessitate providing job-protected time off, upon request.
  • It may be unlawful to force/require someone to take time off or provide fitness-for-duty notes.
  • Making reasonable job accommodations such as a change of duties may be required.

Focus on the facts

Be mindful of your own language when helping an employee through mental health situations, specifically suicidal ideation. Stay focused on factual information and refrain from passing judgments or otherwise making subjective statements or comments that can result in defensiveness. For example, it’s one thing to state, “Today you made the comment that you didn’t want to go on living, and it concerns me” and another to state, “I think you are suicidal and need help.”

Seek help and provide resources

It can be overwhelming to manage these situations on your own, especially without training and expertise; no one expects you to be an expert on this, or to fix our national mental-health crisis alone. The following may be valuable resources for both you and your employees:

When the situation appears to present imminent danger, you may need to reach out to an employee’s emergency contact, a mental health expert, or local police in order to get the employee directly to a hospital or other facility.

Be kind to your staff, and yourself

These situations can be emotionally draining for everyone involved. Without breaking any confidentiality concerns, check in with your employee and offer support. Be sure to also get support for yourself, as needed.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the November 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

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