By Dan Gephart, August 14, 2019

Two mass shootings earlier this month left America shaken. After the horrific event in El Paso, we went to bed saddened, only to wake to news of similar violence in Dayton. The aftermath of these tragedies is as predictable as the ending of the Titanic movie. Thoughts are shared, prayers are offered, and urgent pleas for gun reform are made. National news trucks set up camp in town, then pack up after the vigils and funerals are held.

At some point during the aftermath, conversation turns to mental health. We need to improve the mental health care system in this country. But when politicians and talking heads discuss mental illness only after a violent event, they reinforce the myth that people with mental health impairments are violent and unpredictable.

Sadly, those myths still infiltrate our workplaces, so I’m using my FELTG soapbox this month to explain what you can do to create a healthy work environment for employees with mental disabilities. If you attended Shana Palmieri’s FELTG webinar, Successfully Managing Federal Employees with Mental Health Disabilities, earlier this year, then this information is not new to you. [If you missed the webinar, I highly suggest you contact us to order a recording.]

It’s not true people with mental illness are unstable employees and more prone to violence. It’s not true people with mental health issues are unable to hold down a job, just as it’s not true personality weakness or character flaws cause mental health problems.

Here are the facts:

  • Only 3-5% violent crimes are committed by people with a mental illness, according to data from Health and Human Services. In fact, statistics show people with mental illness are at least 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the general population.
  • People with mental health impairments are just as productive as other employees.
  • Mental health diagnoses are caused by a combination of biological factors (genes and brain chemistry), life experiences that may include trauma and abuse, and family history.

Why should you care about this? Well, one in five Americans are living or with or have experienced a mental health condition, and mental health problems are the leading cause of disability in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So whether you know it or not, you are working alongside a colleague or a supervisor, or managing an employee with a mental health impairment.

Due to the myths and the stigma, as well as the aforementioned lagging health care system, only a third of individuals with mental health issues seek treatment. That’s not good for the workplace, as it leads to the indirect costs of lost productivity and absenteeism. On the flip side, 80 percent of employees who do receive treatment for mental health issues reported improved job satisfaction and improved efficiency.

Creating a healthy workplace environment that is inclusive of individuals with mental health disabilities does not mean getting personally involved in an employee’s life, or taking on the role of a counselor. In fact, that prying is counterproductive. Here’s what a health workplace environment does:

  • It is receptive to employee requests for accommodations, even if that person’s impairment may not be obvious to you. Most accommodations that have been effective for employees with mental disabilities cost very little.
  • It addresses bullying behaviors that create work-related stress and present risks to the mental health of workers. Unchecked bullying leads to reduced productivity and increased staff turnover.
  • It ensures managers and supervisors provide regular honest and constructive feedback to all employees. Strong communication practices benefit all employees.

These actions not only support employees with mental health disabilities, they help all employees, and they make your agency nimbler and more productive.

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