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Working with People with Psychiatric Disabilities

Monday, March 28th, 2011

man looking sad, possibly with a mental illnessAccording to the World Health Organization, about one in four people will develop mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes and heart disease. These statistics help illustrate the prevalence of mental illness and the workplace is no exception.

Not all causes of mental illness or psychiatric disabilities are known, but it’s generally believed that these conditions are due to combination of biochemical, psychological and environmental factors. They can interfere with a person’s ability to think, feel and interact or relate to other people and the environment. Among the most common disorders are anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. But the good news is that many of these conditions can be treated successfully with medication and talk therapy.

Psychiatric disabilities are often not apparent and coworkers probably will not know whether an employee has a psychiatric disability unless he or she chooses to disclose it. But applicants and employees are often deterred from discussing their psychiatric disabilities with employers because of the stigma associated with these disorders.

But once it’s known, it’s important to know how to best interact with people with psychiatric disabilities—keeping an open mind is key.

Top Considerations
• If a worker with a psychiatric disability chooses to disclose his or her condition to an employer or a coworker, it’s important to show that person you trust his or her ability to control his or her behavior.

• The person with a psychiatric disability should be fully integrated into office activities.

• If the person makes an occasional odd statement, try to just agree or let the comment pass and help redirect the person to the topic or task.

• Be sure to minimize stress for the employee as much as possible.

• Approach each employee with an open mind about his or her strengths and abilities.

• Convey important information objectively and avoid using sarcasm and giving mixed messages.

• Talk to the individual in a calm, relaxed manner.

• Make sure that any instructions are defined carefully and clearly. Repeat or summarize information and write it down for the person’s reference when needed. Explain things even if they seem obvious.

• Express expectations for performance clearly. Maintain continuous communication with the individual, providing timely feedback on a regular basis. Do not assume the employee knows when he or she is doing either well or poorly.

• Be firm, fair, flexible and consistent especially in administering policies and work assignments.

Finally, sensitivity and understanding go a long way when interacting with a person with a psychiatric disability and help establish and maintain trust between you.