Changes in behaviour signal potential mental disorder

Labels don’t help, but understanding does
By Kathy Jurgens
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/17/2009

There are plenty of labels for people with mental health-related conditions. Often, managers and supervisors think if only they knew the diagnosis of a particular employee, they would be able to help. But the truth is there are several reasons why the labels won’t help.

First, if 10 people in a workplace had depression, they would all manifest different behaviours at work. Some would be cranky and irritable, others would be emotional or crying, some would be quiet and withdrawn. Some would even be smiling and joking while they struggled with this illness and no one would ever know from looking at them how they suffered.

What matters in the workplace is how, or even if, the illness impacts their work. This is the issue for the front-line manager.

Another reason why labels aren’t useful is people with mental illnesses are misdiagnosed, on average, up to four times in a lifetime. This means the label they’ve been given today may not even be correct next year. Mental health is an evolving science and the symptoms of one illness are also often symptoms of another.

Labels can blind people to who the person really is. This applies whether the label is a mental illness, another disability, skin colour or a university degree. These labels don’t tell the whole story.

While the label for the mental health problem should not matter in terms of how someone is treated in the workplace, managers and supervisors still need to know if someone has a medical condition requiring accommodation. There are several behaviours that can signal that an employee potentially has a mental health problem.

Recognizing the behaviours

One of the easiest ways to recognize someone who is struggling is to look for changes in her usual behaviour.

“I cannot tell you how many times I have heard of employees who were great performers, high achievers, rising stars who suddenly began to change dramatically,” says Mary Ann Baynton, director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Works, which helps employers accommodate employees with mental disorders. “Rather than consider that something may be wrong, the co-workers and employer thought the person suddenly developed a bad attitude.”

While someone’s attitude could spontaneously change, it is very unlikely without a significant change in circumstances or health. Sudden changes in behaviour or personality can be a red flag signalling that something is wrong. If identified early on, the reason for the change can often be addressed in a simple and effective way.

Changes in physical health: People with chronic pain, chronic illness or many health problems are 40 per cent more likely to also have a mental health problem. Think about people who have been in a bad car accident or have just found out they have cancer. To believe there is no impact on their mental health is to ignore the reality the brain and body are one system. What affects one part of the system is bound to affect other parts, including the brain and emotions.

Changes in sleeping or eating: Sleeping or eating can increase or decrease when the brain’s regulatory system is affected by stress or mental health problems. Lack of sleep for three days or more will cause anyone to lose touch with reality.

Changes in appearance: The stereotype about people with mental health problems is they look dishevelled, unkempt or unwashed. This is indeed sometimes the case. However, depending on the nature of the condition, a person’s appearance could also suddenly become more flamboyant and sexualized, as can be the case with mania, or the person may become overly preoccupied with hygiene or presentation, as can be the case with anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Changes in energy or sociability: While everyone has different levels of energy and sociability based on personality, sudden changes can indicate something else is going on.

Changes in work quality or safety: A person whose work was impeccable but suddenly becomes sloppy deserves attention as well. Even accidents on the job may indicate a problem.

Changes in focus: Increases in an employee’s focus on work to the point of obsession or decreases in focus to the point of distraction also indicate a potential problem. These changes should be easily apparent and approached as possibly indicating an emotional struggle rather than just a problem behaviour.

Seeking understanding

Managers can’t know why an employee acts or behaves a certain way until they have the chance to ask him. Even then, the person could place blame or deny the real cause of the issue, but managers should give the employee a chance to help them understand his perspective. In any case, managers need to ensure performance issues are addressed in the workplace, but seeking to understand first can make this process more effective and much less of a struggle for both the employee and the employer.

Kathy Jurgens is the program manager of Mental Health Works, a program run by the Canadian Mental Health Association. For more information on accommodation and managing mental health issues in the workplace, go to

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