HR fills the cracks of an organization, performing all the small and large tasks that don’t fit anywhere else. When accounting can’t manage it, HR performs payroll; when there isn’t a legal team on-site, HR verifies compliance and other regulatory concerns. Yet, perhaps the most important role HR plays within an organization is that of counseling, helping individual employees and teams work through problems and regain high rates of productivity.
It is important to note that HR professionals aren’t trained psychiatrists, and many of them lack experience in true counseling or therapy. So, if HR workers are supposed to help employees through challenges, what (if anything) should they know about mental health? Here’s an HR department’s guide to mental health, so HR professionals understand their responsibilities and can ensure stability and employee well-being in the workplace.
What Is Mental Health?
Recently, mental health has become a catch-all term to describe any and all issues that may affect the mind, as opposed to the body. Indeed, mental health is defined as psychological and emotional well-being, but identifying and maintaining mental health isn’t always so easy.
For one, the human brain remains largely incomprehensible, even by professionals in mental health. It isn’t a simple task to determine whether a person is mentally healthy or even sane; issues with mental health can manifest in myriad ways, from mental and emotional distress to physical illness and vaguely off-seeming behavior. Worse the causes of various mental health problems aren’t well-understood and include biological factors, like genes, as well as life experiences, like trauma or abuse.
Thanks to an increase in awareness about mental health, more people are seeking treatment for their disorders. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in four Americans has been diagnosed with a mental condition, meaning HR reps will almost undoubtedly encounter a mentally ill employee (or, more likely, several) during their tenure. Thus, it is responsible to prepare for this inevitability by learning how HR should address these issues in the workplace.
What Is HR’s Responsibility Regarding Employees’ Mental Health?
HR professionals’ primary purpose is to ensure that employees feel comfortable at work. To accomplish this goal, HR professionals manage benefits packages, to keep employees physically healthy; they oversee payroll, to verify that everyone is paid properly; sometimes they manage recruitment and termination, both of which should be smooth to facilitate workforce productivity; they offer professional development services to grow employees’ applicable skills and knowledge; and perhaps most important of all, they listen and respond appropriately to workers’ personal problems.
Though every above-listed duty might put an HR rep in contact with mental illness, so it is important that everyone in HR understand how to behave appropriately with regards to this growing issue. For one, all HR departments should be aware that it is illegal to discriminate against the mentally ill in any way, unless there is objective evidence that a diagnosed mental illness poses a safety risk or results in poor performance. Even then, employers must provide reasonable accommodation to mental health sufferers, which might include altered work and break schedules, environment changes or changes in supervision. Thus, HR cannot fire someone because they seem depressed; they must have attempted to work with the mental illness and proven that an employee’s condition makes them unfit for employment.
Despite greater awareness of mental health–related issues, mental illness remains stigmatized, so many mentally ill workers might be uncomfortable admitting to their mental trouble and seeking help. Yet, untreated mental conditions often miss work, demonstrate lower performance than their peers and are otherwise less-than-ideal employees. Indeed, untreated mental illness costs U.S. companies over $100 billion every year, so it is in their best interest to train HR to assist employees in finding diagnoses and mental aid.
How Should HR Approach Mental Health Issues?
HR workers with an interest in mental health might consider bolstering their knowledge about conditions and appropriate reactions. Many HR resource providers offer white papers, seminars and similar learning tools to educate HR professionals on the topic. HR employees can also obtain a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling online, which not only improves their understanding of mental illness and ability to assist sufferers but also provides a path into a new career.
At the very least, HR workers should know the employment laws surrounding mental illness and inform their potential an existing staff of rules and responses unique to their employer. HR should also fight for more adjustments for mentally ill employees, which will improve the workplace culture and help the workforce in general feel more at-ease. When a work environment accepts the reality of mental conditions and assists employees in finding treatment, more workers will speak up about their troubles and performance should improve.
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