Mental health and personal issues are on the rise in the workplace, with mental health issues making up 30 per cent of short-term disability claims, according to the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
At Mississauga, Ont.-based Purolator Courier, psychological claims increased 68 per cent from 2005 to 2006, says Doug Kube, the company’s director of environment health safety compensation and benefits. These include issues around stress, anxiety, depression and family-related concerns.
Often the problems are situational in nature, says Kube. For instance, an employee might feel overwhelmed when a parent is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“It then becomes a skill of how do we facilitate or negotiate a solution. Sometimes it’s between an employee and a manager, sometimes it’s redirecting an employee to professional help,” says Kube.
In the former case the HR professional would approach the manager, lay out the employee’s situation and try to negotiate a flexible arrangement that will work for both parties, he says.
Often when an employee is going through emotional turmoil, it’s unlikely he would approach HR directly about the personal issue, says Ingrid Taylor, director of critical incident response and organizational services for Markham, Ont.-based employee assistance program Ceridian LifeWorks.
“They may come in to HR and actually ask about sick leave entitlement and then go on to speak about their feelings of not being able to cope with something,” she says.
While the HR professional may feel as though she’s been thrust into the role of counsellor and confidant, it’s a role she shouldn’t take on, says Taylor.
Instead, she should focus on her HR skills, with the benefit of extra training in empathetic listening and mediation, she says.
The professional is a great source for information on benefits available to the employee that could be helpful in the situation, she can interpret the appropriate work policies, provide mentoring and coaching for work-related issues and refer the employee to the appropriate mental health support, says Taylor.
“Clearly HR professionals have tremendous skills, but don’t necessarily have the training, nor is it appropriate for them, to be acting as the counsellor for the employee,” says Taylor. “Refrain from giving life advice, but rather stay focused on the coaching of workplace issues.”
This sentiment is echoed at Purolator.
“The challenge going forward will be to equip the HR professional with the skills to feel confident enough to help the person, to do that active listening, to understand their issue and to be able to identify where to direct that individual,” says Kube.
Some warning signs an employee needs professional help include the employee frequently talking to HR about a personal issue; concerns about safety; or if the professional thinks the employee’s performance problems may be linked to an underlying emotional issue, says Taylor.
However, employees might be reluctant to access the EAP because they don’t understand how it works and they worry about confidentiality, says Laura Thanasse, senior vice-president of total compensation at Toronto-based Scotiabank. That’s why the bank communicates the EAP program to all employees, including HR and managers, as part of its orientation program.
The bank also ensures there are multiple ways to access the EAP. Employees can contact the EAP by e-mail, by calling the HR call centre, by talking with their HR manager or staff ombudsman or through the employee intranet, says Thanasse.
“Training and development has long recognized that there’s no one way to learn and we try to recognize there is no one perfect way to access EAP,” she says.
While its EAP is an important part of Purolator’s wellness initiative, Kube is trying to be more proactive with employee mental health.
“We’re challenging our HR staff to implement more prevention programs to help people to cope better with the day-to-day stresses and the issues that they’re dealing with,” he says.
As part of that, Purolator’s HR professionals are learning how to teach managers leadership skills and how to develop their emotional quotient, including coaching and feedback skills, says Kube.
These kinds of emotionally aware performance management skills are essential to a healthy workplace, says Bill Wilkerson, president of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.
Interpersonal conflicts between an employee and his manager are often a result of demanding and unrealistic performance measures, says Wilkerson.
“Too many people are forgiven for bad habits simply because they have been mandated to meet certain performance results,” says Wilkerson.
This can harm the employee’s self-esteem and sense of control, which leads to a heightened risk of mental health problems, says Wilkerson.
The HR professional can help the manager develop healthier performance measures that focus on decency, discretion and balance, he says. That means expecting enough of the employee, but not too much, and setting reasonable deadlines.
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