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Have a Co-Worker in Distress? Suggest Mental Health Resources

Help generally comes in the form of support and listening, but the right balance can be challenging. Also: What should you do if a co-worker is being sexual harassed?

NEW YORK – Johnny C. Taylor Jr. tackles your human resources questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society and author of “Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval.”

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: I supervise a group of six employees at a logistics services company. I suspect one of my employees is showing signs of clinical anxiety. Should I approach the employee to address it? How can I support the employee if this is true? – Lisa

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: I appreciate you wanting to support one of your employees, but you’re going down an incredibly dangerous path. I always recommend referring employees to trained medical professionals for health matters. And because of the stigma attached to mental health, which can discourage openness about mental health, leave it to the professionals.

Now, what can you do? Show support simply by being available to listen. If the employee shares the struggle, encourage this person to utilize an Employee Assistance Program, use time off balances, or take personal mental health days as needed.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act you can make certain medical inquiries of employees in very limited situations. You should not ask employees about health conditions without having a reason considered “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” If your employee poses a direct threat to themselves or others, an employer could make a medical inquiry in that instance.

If your employee’s performance is not up to expectations, you may want to address the issue with this person directly. However, if the employee’s behavior or conduct seems off, you could check in to see how he or she is doing. This could include seeing if an employee has all the tools or timeframes needed to successfully complete job duties.

If this person discloses a mental health condition, you should engage in the interactive process under the ADA. The interactive process can help determine if an accommodation is needed and if providing accommodation is reasonable or causes an undue hardship on the business. An employee with a disability may still be held to the same performance expectations as employees without disabilities.

As a workplace leader, you can always address your team as a whole without singling out a specific individual. Emphasize in team meetings what resources are available to protect mental wellness, especially during periods of high stress. It can also help to talk about the steps you take to protect your own mental health. Workers often take cues from their leaders. So, it is important for leaders to set the tone for what they want to see in the workplace.

Frequently touch base with all your employees to stay aware of their needs. Listening to them promotes openness, awareness and understanding. Prioritizing mental health not only protects your workers, it also protects the workplace.

Question: I witnessed a co-worker of mine be targeted with inappropriate sexual comments. However, she does not want to report it. Am I obligated to report what I have seen? – Sandra

Taylor: It is understandable for your co-worker to be uncomfortable escalating or talking about experiencing sexual misconduct. However, showing concern and support can help this person feel better about taking necessary action.

While there aren’t any federal regulations requiring you to report inappropriate sexual conduct directed at co-workers, many employers have a workplace harassment policy that covers sexual harassment and retaliation. I recommend you review your company’s relevant policies. If you are required as a witness to report any kind of inappropriate conduct, then by all means do so.

However, if your company’s policies don’t require you to report it, you may want to consider your options and what is best for all involved. This could be very tricky, especially when you want what’s best for your co-worker and your workplace.

You could encourage your co-worker to consider speaking with the alleged harasser and let this person know his or her comments were inappropriate. If you witnessed the harassing comments, and if you are comfortable and feel safe doing so, address the person who is inappropriately targeting your co-worker. Respectfully let the person know you witnessed the behavior and make clear this behavior is inappropriate and not tolerable. Unfortunately, most of the time, behavior like this will not stop until someone steps up and says something.

If the inappropriate comments continue or there is other harassing behavior, explain to your co-worker that you aren’t comfortable not saying anything to anyone. Encourage your co-worker to report it to Human Resources or upper management and show support through the process by voicing your general concerns, even if this person doesn’t speak up.

Workers play a vital role in creating and protecting their workplace culture. Realistically, HR can’t be everywhere and see everything. Neither can managers or senior leadership. So, being intentional about what you want and, in this case, don’t want in your workplace is important. Taking action to protect your co-workers and yourself is wholly appropriate.

Copyright 2021, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY

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