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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Unipolar Depressed Patient

Q. Can you suggest reading material for employers in managing employees who have been diagnosed as unipolar depressed? My employee has recently been hospitalized in an acute care center after a serious period of crisis in her personal life. This is her third time of having been hospitalized in the last 10 years. Her illness has affected her work to the degree that she's unable to be consistent in her attendance and performance. I am concerned that this is going to be an ongoing issue and I will never be able to rely on her to perform the job for which she was hired. I don't want to cause her further problems, but I have a business to run and this has created an undue hardship on both me and the rest of the staff. Is there an effective way to deal with people who have this disease? My normal management techniques are not working.

A. This sounds like a frustrating problem for you, as I'm sure it is for your depressed employee. It sounds like you want to do the right thing, and here are some suggestions. First of all, I recommend you log on to the National Institute of Mental Health webpage, and find the document "What to do when an employee is depressed: A guide for supervisors". You can find this at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depemployee.cfm. This documents points out that depression results in more days in bed than many other illnesses, such as ulcers, diabetes, or high blood pressure, and that at any one time, 1 employee in 20 is experiencing depression.

In addition to learning how to recognize depression in the workplace, many employers are making treatment available through employee assistance programs, and company-sponsored health benefits. These efforts are helping to reduce lost time and job-related accidents. The NIMH website recommends an employer sitting down with the employee, and saying something like, "I'm concerned that recently you've been late to work often and aren't meeting your performance objectives... I'd like to see you get back on track. I don't know whether this is the case for you, but if personal issues are affecting your work, you can speak confidentially to one of our employee assistance counselors. The service was set up to help employees. Our conversation today and appointments with the counselor will be kept confidential. Whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals."

This statement makes the important point that while employers must make reasonable accommodations for individuals with mental and other disabilities (under the Americans with Disabilities Act), employers are not expected to retain employees who-after such accomodations have been made-simply can't do the job. Still, employers can help the depressed individual by trying to arrange for a flexible work schedule during periods of relapse or treatment.

For more information, I suggest you also consider contacting the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (their hotline number is 800-950-6264); the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (202-467-5730); and The Americans with Disabilities Act Technical Assistance Center (800-949-4232). And remember-the key to helping your employee is making sure she has reasonable flexibility on the job, and access to appropriate care and treatment.

March 2001

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