Insubordinate? Or Just Sick?

Co-workers with difficult personalities may be suffering from mental illness

words by Tracy Jones

In nearly every workspace, there's often one person who can make your day much harder. Maybe they talk too much, or perhaps they're a chronic complainer.
Then there are the outright rude ones—those who bark back rather than respond or constantly look at the workplace through a negative lens. But it may be more than a bad attitude that's causing this behavior.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 26 percent of the country's adult population has a mental health issue. Only about 36 percent of those receive the minimal treatment to lessen the symptoms, which can vary from a person being withdrawn to openly
In Duval County, about 10 percent of residents say they've experienced poor mental health on 14 or more of the past 30 days overall, according to the Florida Department of Health's Bureau of Epidemiology.
The numbers suggest that many may have a colleague with a diagnosed or untreated form of mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder and anxiety. But approaching a co-worker about a potential mental illness is a sensitive, and oftentimes uncomfortable, topic to discuss.
If a co-worker is diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or has a heart attack, everyone rallies around with casseroles, cards and loving support, says Peggy Harrell, who serves as a board member for Jacksonville's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, most people just do not know what to do or what to say.”
More outward signs of mental illness include sudden changes in a person's demeanor such as a once outgoing person becoming reclusive or hypersensitive. These shifts in behavior are usually
associated with a major life change such as divorce or death, according to Noelle Pomeroy, a counselor at the University of North Florida's Counseling Center.
Mental illness manifests itself in different ways. In women, it can look like sadness; and in men, it may manifest itself as anger, which is often seen as a more appropriate way to channel sadness.
The stigma associated with the illness makes many reluctant to seek help, no matter how poorly they feel. But if you suspect someone truly needs help, it’s best to speak up.
“If it's affecting you negatively, you owe it to yourself and the other person to make your
supervisor aware of it,” says Pomeroy.
The best approach is to speak with the person directly, says Allan Orski, a licensed clinical social worker at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville.
“You should speak to the employee in a direct, supportive and compassionate manner, just like a friend or loved one,” he says.
Pomeroy suggests using phrases such as, “I'm worried about you,” or, “please let me know if I can help.” “This tactic comes off as less aggressive and more compassionate,” she says.
However, it's critical not to be confrontational with your co-worker, or it could backfire, according to Linda Plummer of Plummer & Associates, a Jacksonville human resources consulting firm.
Plummer says larger companies often have employee assistance programs, which provide counseling services to employees for free.
These services are especially helpful for people with undiagnosed mental illnesses and their co-workers, who should shy away from attempting to diagnose someone themselves.
“You don't want to play doctor or therapist and try to figure out what's going on with someone,” Plummer says.
If you are the supervisor and suspect a mental health issue with an employee, the protocol is different. Plummer advises supervisors to focus on how behavior impacts the workplace, rather than what the behaviors could mean.
Supervisors should be especially cautious because mental illness falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act's definition of disability, says Evan Gibbs, a Jacksonville attorney at Constangy, Brooks & Smith, which specializes in employee litigation. Oftentimes, it’s best to just let human resources determine the best way to help the employee.
“The actions of supervisors and other members of management create liability for the company,” Gibbs says. “If a supervisor is untrained on the basics of the ADA and then handles a disability issue incorrectly, the company could be on the hook if the employee later brings a lawsuit.”
Then there are those people who can just have bad attitudes. Behaviors adapted throughout their lifetime, such as a strict perception of how one should behave in the workplace, can contribute to this and should be addressed with your supervisor.
“I think that in virtually any field in which you work, there are going to be people who are just difficult,” says Pomeroy. “You kind of have to be a detective in determining how you can approach people and the most effective ways of communicating with them.”