BY: Jennifer Humphrey, MA, LPCC-S, LICDC

When most people think of “mental illness,” they think of certain diagnoses like borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and so on, all of which can be treated to some degree, or at least they think of what TV and movies depict those disorders to be.

While there are absolutely people who hear voices and believe God has instructed them to commit a crime, the reality for most diagnoses is that is simply not the case. In fact, most mental illness diagnoses a rooted from anxiety and depression. There are literal classes on both so I won’t dwell too much on what that means but I will say that anxiety and depression are not “feeling anxious about the test” or “I woke up sad today” and someone’s preference for organization is not OCD.

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According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA, ):

• Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.

• Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.

• People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.

What this means for us is that it’s highly likely that someone you work with suffers from some form anxiety or depression or other mental illness and they likely aren’t receiving treatment. This is important for many reasons. Often productive, supportive and vital team members may present with signs of a mental illness and their usefulness or ability to work is called into question. They may or may not have a diagnosis.

Anxiety disorders can present with various symptoms. When you think of an anxiety disorder, what do you think of? Someone who can’t leave their home? Someone in a corner, rocking back and forth? Those can certainly be symptoms of severe anxiety, but anxiety disorders can manifest themselves in a multitude of ways.

Do you have a co-worker who appears “bi-polar”? One minute they are fine working diligently — you ask them to change a part of the project or give them a small task — then they lose it. They may raise their voice, become sarcastic, begin to rant about you, the task or the job. They may even burst into tears. This isn’t bi-polar disorder — that’s not how bi-polar disorder works — this is likely anxiety.

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For many people, anxiety can present itself as anger or even rage. Often, co-workers begin to avoid approaching the anxious co-worker and may express feeling like they are “walking on eggshells” or that they simply cannot approach the co-worker. As this employee’s anxiety level increases, so do the symptoms and eventually, management and/or HR must step in which causes even more increased anxiety and symptoms in the employee. This formerly productive, friendly and vital part of your team, has become unproductive, isolated and does limited work.

An employee who has anxiety or depression may also sleep very little. Thus, they show up to work exhausted and sometimes irritated. If you have spent even a few hours around a small child, you know that if they become overtired, the sweet little baby becomes a whiny little kid. Adults are much the same. We only have a vocabulary but our exhaustion limits our ability to manage our emotions and do other basic tasks. Someone might “snap” at someone over a simple request. They may slam a door or shove papers off their desk. They may also fall asleep at their desk.

To compensate, they may drink copious amounts of caffeine ensuring that they will likely not sleep that night either, as caffeine in and of itself does not help make anxiety or depression better. It can, in fact, exacerbate symptoms, making this situation even more complicated.

These are examples of “simple” diagnosis. This doesn’t cover nuances of different disorders, different medications, the side effects of medications (everything from insomnia to acne to diarrhea to constipation to irritation or drowsiness) or the cycle of: symptoms that impact functioning treatment > “I feel better, I’m cured” > stop treatment > symptoms return.

These are examples of “simple” diagnosis. This doesn’t cover nuances of different disorders, different medications, the side effects of medications (everything from insomnia to acne to diarrhea to constipation to irritation or drowsiness) or the cycle of: symptoms that impact functioning treatment > “I feel better, I’m cured” > stop treatment > symptoms return.

To further complicate the issue, often when people experience symptoms of depression and anxiety see a primary care physician. The PCP then adjusts medication, but the employee/co-worker never really learns coping skills or addresses the root of the depression or anxiety.

Most of the symptoms and behaviors listed above apply to multiple diagnoses and most of those diagnoses fall on a spectrum ranging from manageable to completely unmanageable. We may be interacting with someone at the beginning of their journey or someone who has been well managed for years, but their medication stopped working (tolerance), they couldn’t afford to pick it up last week, their therapist is on vacation or their symptoms increased because they experienced a traumatic life event such as divorce, foreclosure, bankruptcy or loss of a loved one.

Mental health, while being very personal, is also something that is often also public. In many industries, when an employee begins to have some of the symptoms/behaviors listed above, HR comes in and has “the chat” about professional and appropriate behavior.

That conversation is certainly important, but I think that opening the discussion about professional behavior should then segue into asking questions, questions like:

“What’s going on in your world?”

“Where do you think you are getting stuck?”

“What is your biggest frustration?”

“How can we support you better in your role?”

Leadership may find that shift changes, getting employee assistance program (EAP) members involved, moving desks, ensuring the employee takes a break or engages in minor self care methods throughout the work day can assist in decreasing many concerns and assist the employee in returning to their former selves at work. By supporting the employee, we can allow that employee who has been productive, efficient, thorough, detail oriented, creative and otherwise an asset to the team and company to return to that while also dealing with their own concerns and struggles.

At the end of the day, as members of leadership, our job is to set our employees up for success because successful employees will make a successful company. The people who work for our company will remember they were treated as people and will likely work harder, smarter and more efficiently because they have buy in to the company or leadership.


Jennifer Humphrey, MA, LPCC-S, LICDC
Operations Director at BrightView LLC

Visit Jennifer’s profile on LinkedIn.

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