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Employee Illnesses: How Does Your Company Respond?

A pregnant project manager suffered mini seizures but was too concerned about deadlines to visit a doctor and didn’t realize how frequent the seizures had become. A newly-widowed engineer, previously a model employee, began coming in late, wandering the halls to chat with the secretaries and leaving early. One day, he invited a secretary to sit on his lap.

As an employer, what would you do? When a valued employee suffers a physical or mental illness, your concern for that employee naturally includes concern for your other employees and your business.

One of the first steps you need to take, before any illness arises, is to have a policy in your Employee Handbook for illnesses and to make sure that managers understand the importance of recognizing and properly addressing physical and mental illnesses. Fortunately, for the pregnant project manager, her boss witnessed one of the seizures and insisted that she go to the doctor. She was diagnosed with mild epilepsy brought on by the pregnancy.

Mental illnesses are often harder to detect than physical illnesses, but an estimated 20% of employees will suffer a mental illness during their careers, including stress, depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorders, and psychosis. Managers should not attempt to diagnose or label mental illnesses any more than they would try to diagnose a physical problem.

Whether physical or mental illnesses are involved, managers should focus on issues that affect job performance, including inability to relate to others professionally, handle workload or arrive on time. They should document changes in behavior, skills (such as decision making) or energy level, so that they have evidence of a work-related issue rather than trusting their “gut instincts.” Managers should also be sensitive to problems that, on the surface, seem to benefit the company, at least in the short-term. For example, an employee might work extremely long hours, both daily and on weekends; eventually the employee may become so stressed that he quits or begins lashing out at others who are working fewer hours.

Employees should feel free to talk to Human Resource representatives and managers about any accommodations that are needed, such as flexible hours (for example, to attend either physical or psychiatric therapy). In the case of a chronic illness, employees may need to discuss emergency procedures; for example, how to deal with seizures. The employee may need guidance in talking with co-workers about an illness; but those co-workers may be the first line of aid in the event of an emergency. The employee needs to be part of a conversation on how to balance the concerns for privacy with concern for the employee’s health (and perhaps everyone’s safety).

For help developing a company policy or handling an employee’s possible physical or mental illness, please contact HR Compliance 101.

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