Wellness & fitness
Navigating a conversation about mental health
Monday 19 September 2022
ASK: An employee has disclosed a mental health condition. What are the best practices for leading the conversation?
Reading your question made me smile because it is asked frequently. In Kenya, most young people are satisfied with a diagnosis of mental illness. This is a new and very sane turn of events.
That then brings us to you and your employee and how to deal with the “explosive” news that they have developed one of the 300 or so mental disorders.
These conditions range from what are known as common mental disorders (CMDs) such as anxiety and depression to more severe and chronic conditions such as schizophrenia. These are as different as night and day in terms of the causes and results of treatment. Which of these disclosures did he make?
To put it bluntly, has the employee disclosed that he has the mental equivalent of a cold, or that he has the equivalent of lung cancer that has spread to his bones?
This extreme example is intended to lead you to understand that disclosure of a medical condition must be followed by your understanding of the meaning and consequence of such disclosure. Understanding the course of the disease is at the heart of what can be expected of you.
To cite another extreme example, the traveling salesman might make such a disclosure so you know he has a “flying phobia” and can no longer perform the regional sales job you hired him for because he no longer flies can. It could happen that you have a vacancy at the vocational school where he could continue to work in the company. Problem solved!
Similarly, the disclosure could be that a staff member was diagnosed with postnatal depression and advised to take some time off from her job as chief of surgery.
In another example, the 59-year-old employee could disclose a diagnosis of early-onset dementia related to his chronic alcohol use and possibly ask to retire a year earlier than contractually required.
For the sake of clarity and emphasis, two things emerge from the question you posed. First, there are many different types of mental disorders, with many different possible outcomes.
The other point is that your use of the word “disclose” suggests the possibility that an issue of confidentiality exists between the employee and the company. As you ponder this point, keep in mind that up to 25 percent of all of us will experience some type of mental disorder at some point in our lives. Could you be one of them?
dr Njenga is a psychiatrist and mental health consultant and the author of several academic papers and books