The Complexities of Managing Employee Emotional and Mental Health Issues

by James McDonough

Bulletin,  Performance Management

Mental health or poor attitude? Disability or incompetence? Fearful venting or potential violence problem? How can an employer tell the difference, and what are the options to effectively and legally manage situations involving employee mental and emotional health? Let‘s explore the differences and considerations using some real life scenarios.

Scenario 1: Joe has worked for the company for over 10 years, is a competent worker, and has the reputation of being a “grump.” His behavior has never risen to a level requiring performance documentation. Recently, after a process change in his workflow, his attitude turned surlier, and now coworkers actively steer clear of him. This morning, Joe walked into his supervisor’s office, slammed a pile of papers on the desk, and yelled complaints about his workload. Other employees in the office, startled by the noise, called HR for assistance.

Analysis: Being “grumpy” is typically considered an attitude and not a disability. The law does not protect employees with a bad attitude, and thus it is legal to discipline employees for such behavior, especially if it negatively impacts the work environment. In this example, the company provided tacit approval of Joe’s surly disposition by tolerating it for years without clearly communicating to him that it was a problem. Making Joe aware of his behavior and the negative impact it has on the workplace would have been most appropriate. When his attitude deteriorated after changes to his work processes, Joe did not express any problems nor did he request any help; there was no reason for the supervisor to reasonably suspect a serious health condition was present. Joe’s behavior should not be tolerated. Venting frustration in this manner is uncivil, bullying behavior that may open the door to workplace violence. An immediate conversation with Joe about his behavior should take place. Consequences to impose on Joe in this case depend on the details and should follow employer policy, practice, and precedent. Employers must evaluate and document facts, consider the risks involved with each approach, then decide how to proceed.  

Scenario 2: Today a manager discovered that an employee-only men’s restroom was defaced during the current shift. All employees on duty are immediately gathered for a meeting to discuss the situation. Everyone is advised that such behavior is unacceptable, and the company is taking the incident seriously. A recently hired employee, Billy, laughs and makes a comment about “lunch not sitting right.” The manager’s gut feeling is that he is the primary suspect. Billy’s a good worker but sometimes shows signs of agitation, mumbles to himself, and just acts “odd.” This disgusting episode is creating a great deal of concern among the employees, hurting morale. The manager calls HR.

Analysis: Defacing company property is an act of vandalism, and this brazen case warrants urgent action and immediate investigation. The culprit is exhibiting hostile behavior that could spiral into workplace violence. External help may be warranted, such as a skilled workplace investigator who can interview employees, document findings, and provide guidance on a course of action. The company should take steps to monitor workplace behaviors and identify any developments that merit further action.

The manager’s gut feeling should not be ignored, but Billy’s “odd” behaviors are not enough to determine guilt and impose consequences. “Odd” behaviors do not prove a disability, and therefore, special legal protections do not apply. Employers must be careful to not regard employees with such behaviors as having a disability. In this example, Billy’s “odd” behavior also does not prove guilt, nor merit punitive action. An immediate meeting with Billy should be discreetly conducted to discuss his comment, the observed behaviors, and specific items of concern. It is appropriate to ask Billy if he knows anything about the bathroom mess as long as HR asks all other employees the same question. During the conversation with Billy, the employer should listen carefully and ask appropriate follow-up questions. If Billy asks for help in some way, the employer should take his lead and offer assistance.

If his performance remains acceptable and his “odd” behavior does not negatively impact the workplace, the employer must be careful to not treat him differently from other employees. The employer should remain aware of Billy’s behaviors that may negatively impact the workplace. As necessary, the employer should discuss behavioral concerns with him, clarify expectations, and hold him accountable. The employer must listen carefully should any changes occur. Billy may eventually express concerns over health issues, divulge a disability, or just request assistance. This employer’s obligation to engage in an interactive process with him can be triggered at any time.

Scenario 3: Arlene, a long-term employee, once very competent in her job duties, has started to make mistakes even though there has been no significant change in job duties or workplace conditions. Arlene’s coworkers discovered her errors and corrected them, assuming they were minor oversights. Eventually they grew tired of this and complained to the supervisor. When the supervisor meets with her to discuss, she cries, mentions something about stressful personal problems, and pledges to do better. When the errors don’t improve and she is confronted again, she leaves the meeting and heads to the HR manager where she cries and complains her boss is “mean.” The HR manager brings in the supervisor to conduct a three-way conversation, and Arlene complains of being overworked, stressed out, and frustrated at her inability to focus on work details.

Analysis: Arlene appears to be asking for help and citing health issues for her performance problems. This bears discussion and possible accommodation. The fact that she was a competent employee for so long and now struggles to complete common tasks is a red flag. It is appropriate for the employer to ask, “Why are you not performing to standards as you have before?” and to then listen carefully. If the employee responds with an “I don’t care” attitude, disciplinary consequences may be appropriate. But if he or she responds with a request for help, it is necessary to ask, “How can we support you in doing your job successfully?” This is the start of an interactive process, an essential ongoing dialog between Arlene and the employer as mandated by ADA. Note that just being overworked is not a workplace disability, but her expression of stress and inability to focus could be evidence of an emergent issue the employer must address via the interactive process.

Scenario 4: Sally is a long-term employee with strong workplace performance when she is “on,” but her attitude can be problematic when she has an “off” day. Her supervisor discusses her inconsistent attitude, and she responds, “Hey, everyone has bad days!” She’s made aware of workplace expectations for consistently cordial behavior, but the supervisor decides her behavior does not merit further consequences.

Eventually, the supervisor notices Sally is having more “off” days than usual. She’s becoming withdrawn and was overheard crying in the bathroom. Yesterday, after a minor disagreement with a coworker, she ran into a storage room. Coworkers could hear her talking angrily and other loud sounds. After a few minutes, Sally calmly returned to her desk and finished the day without further problems. A coworker went into the storage room soon after and found a pile of empty boxes, full of holes from being pierced by a sharp object, neatly stacked by the recycling bin. The coworker advises the supervisor of what was observed, saying, “Everyone is freaked out.”

Analysis: Sally’s observed behaviors and conduct in the storage room merit a sensitive discussion by her employer. The recent incident provides a reasonable basis to open a dialog beyond previous discussions about acceptable workplace behaviors. By stating the facts, the employer must make it clear that the “storage room” incident included actions that are not tolerable in the workplace. It was disruptive to other workers, creating a general sense of anxiety and fearfulness. The employer may ask, “Please explain what happened yesterday” and, “What can we do to support you in our workplace?” to open an interactive process to identify possible solutions. In fact, ADA compliance demands such a conversation. Take the lead from the employee, exploring possible accommodation solutions. If workplace safety is a concern, due to Sally’s actions in the storage room, it may be appropriate to provide a leave of absence to Sally until additional information is collected from a medical professional.

Some essential guidelines for employers to follow when managing employee emotional and mental health:


  • Policies that are carefully drafted and legally sound should be in place to inform employees of their rights and responsibilities. This protects the employer by establishing behavioral standards for all employees to follow and consequences if they do not.
  • Train supervisors to understand their role in identifying and managing employee health issues. Typically they are involved long before anyone calls HR for help.
  • Understand “red flags”! An employee asking for help, or expressing concern that something is wrong beyond his or her ability to manage, indicates a larger issue that requires closer scrutiny. It may involve the ADA interactive process. It may even require urgent medical attention before it spirals out of control, possibly into workplace violence.


  • Observe behaviors, interactions, conversations, and hygiene (workplace, personal).
  • Listen carefully to what employees are saying, including “water cooler chat.” If unclear, ask follow-up questions.
  • Document facts related to observed conduct, behavior, performance, interactions, comments made, etc.
  • Discuss facts with the employee. Provide specific examples, explaining why they don’t meet requirements, and allow them to ask questions. This includes confronting supervisors who may not feel comfortable dealing with such situations.
  • Ask appropriate questions to follow up with employees who are exhibiting behavior or performance issues: “What is causing your attitude/actions/behaviors that don’t meet our standards?” Then follow up with, “What can we do to support you?”
  • Be clear when discussing an employee’s behavioral concerns, focus on specifics, and avoid judgment (e.g., “Your conduct is not meeting standards”).
  • Protect employee privacy and keep sensitive health information confidential from coworkers who may be curious and concerned.


  • Don’t assume you know what is wrong or what an employee needs; this can lead to poor decision-making. “Hidden” health factors or personal issues may be causing the problem.
  • Don’t diagnose an employee’s condition, even if life experience and gut instinct tell you an employee is afflicted. Rely upon a medical professional’s diagnosis and recommendations.
  • Seek help when the situation is beyond your ability to understand or manage. This is true for everyone involved, including HR and the employee who may not understand his or her health needs.
  • Treat each situation as unique! Previous experiences may inform your actions, but the nuances of each employee situation require an individualized approach.      

MSEC members are encouraged to contact us for assistance with managing sensitive employee issues.

About the author
James McDonough

James McDonough, HR Research Consultant, consults with Employers Council members to provide guidance and support on their organizational practices. He writes articles, conducts presentations and trainings on HR compliance, organizational effectiveness and business management topics. A graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder, James has worked in the public and private sectors in HR and business management.