What to do when an employee is mentally ill

To many people, mental health is still a highly sensitive topic. When an employee discloses information about their mental health, knowing how to respond is crucial. You want them to know that you listen to them without judgement, but you also want to highlight that your perception of them or employment status will not change.

At the same time, you also want to know what you can do when an employee cannot work due to mental health reasons. There are many practical aspects to be considered – such as how the rest of the team and the workload will be impacted. Moreover, there are also legal aspects that have to be discussed. Given the difficulty of this situation, any employer can benefit from knowing what they can do when an employee discloses mental health-related information.

The implications of poor mental health for the workplace

A study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in 2019 reported that nearly 45% of employees were struggling with a mental health issue. However, many of those who took time off gave a different reason for their decision. This reinforces that many employees do not feel comfortable bringing up mental health conversations in the workplace.

Besides the existing stigma around mental health, dealing with mental health issues also adds a different type of weight in the workplace. For instance, Public Health England reported in 2018 that one-third of productivity was lost due to work-related stress and mental health problems. Decreased work performance and absence can cost the UK economy around £80 billion per year.

However, the costs that result from poor mental health are not only financial. When an employee cannot meet performance requirements, the entire team will suffer the consequences. More specifically, lost productivity can also lead to the following effects:

  • Poor morale among employees who have to work extra to ‘fill in’ tasks for absent coworkers
  • Excess manager time – as managers have to find suitable replacements for absent employees
  • Poor delivery of services caused by understaffing
  • Safety issues (caused by insufficiently trained workers that temporarily replace absent employees).

To reduce the severity of those consequences, employers need to be prepared – both with the right words and actions – to respond adequately to employees who cannot work because of mental health issues.

How to manage employees with mental health issues

When considering what to do when an employee is mentally ill, there are many aspects to consider. The following suggestions not only mitigate the effects of mental distress but also strengthen employee relationships. Your response to someone’s mental illness in the workplace can include offering resources, performance management, and flexible working.

Show empathy and understanding

Someone who discloses that they struggle with mental illness might already feel vulnerable. Approach employees with compassion and a willingness to understand them instead of judging them for their condition. You can also help a lot simply by being willing to brainstorm solutions with the employee if they consent to it. Ask them what they need, and how can you be of help?

Regardless of the decision, remaining supportive and non-judgemental goes a long way. It can a great relief for an employee to know their employer is on their side and wants them to get back to their best version of themselves. Let them know that you are there and do your best to normalise feelings of stress and worry, especially in difficult times.

Direct them to professional support

There are many instances when, as an employer, you cannot provide the right support. This is understandable – not everyone is trained as a mental health professional. Sometimes, there is not much you can do aside from listening and offering empathy. Knowing the boundaries of your expertise is highly important because trying to offer more resources than you have can do more harm than good.

When appropriate, do not be afraid to refer people further to trained mental health professionals. This can mean a psychologist, psychotherapist, or medical professional who can conduct further investigations into their mental state.


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Help them identify resources for support

Besides professional mental health support, there are other resources an employee can use when struggling with their mental health. Some of these resources will already be available within the company – such as employee resource groups or wellbeing programs. You can point the employee to those sources if they are willing to access them.

You can also direct them to an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) if there’s one available within your organization. However, keep in mind that sometimes this is not sufficient, and perhaps clinical care is needed.

Delegate when needed

Extra deadlines can feel overwhelming to someone already dealing with serious mental health challenges. If possible, share deadlines whenever you can break large projects down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This can reduce the effect of the extra stressors while ensuring that tasks are still attended to.

Don’t forget to look after yourself

While doing your best to run a team and support an employee with mental health issues, remember to also look after yourself. As you already know, people cannot pour from an empty cup. You need to ensure that you do not deplete your own resources and well-being in the process of helping someone else.

Make sure to check in with yourself, take time away, and ask for help when you need it. Treating a mental health condition is not your responsibility, and the sooner you realise this, the better you can direct people to better resources.

Final do’s and dont’s:


  • Show willingness to listen and provide empathic support
  • Think about the resources you can offer
  • Consider legal and HR implications and discuss them with the appropriate people (this might also involve a breach in confidentiality)
  • Normalize the conversation about mental health issues
  • Still hold people accountable for adequate behavioural standards


  • Overpromise the support you can offer without checking in with HR first
  • Conceal your experience with prior mental health challenges
  • Display frustration, anger, or irritation in response to someone’s mental health symptoms
  • Overlook inappropriate behaviours or breached workplace policies

SupportRoom can help

If you are unsure about managing an employee with a mental illness, we are here to help. SupportRoom offers flexible mental health support for both employees and leaders. Our team of therapists is here to support your employees who need mental health support, so do get in touch with us.

Try SupportRoom today and offer your employees the professional mental health support they need.

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