Workplace Dysfunction and Mental Illness


Workplace Dysfunction and Mental Illness – Are Your Actions (or Inaction) Making it Better or Worse?

The issue of mental illness – and mental health generally – comes up frequently in the work that I do.  During training, investigations and environmental scans, I am commonly asked “What if the unacceptable behaviour is the result of mental illness?  What if staff are “afraid” of particular leaders or coworkers because of their instability or anger issues? How does an organization properly balance the needs of those suffering from mental illness with the rights of others to a safe and healthy workplace?”

These are not easy questions to answer but they are critical questions to ask.  The intersection of mental health and respectful workplaces is a complex issue that needs to be better understood generally and more effectively managed on a case-by-case basis.

What I can say generally is that in many workplaces, the actions of bystanders and leaders have often worked to aggravate, rather than defuse, an already tense and complicated situation.  Instead of bringing insight to the situation, many have worked to incite the “challenging” employee by dealing with the matter in an insensitive and often indefensible manner. Or, they have incited the “team” (resulting in lost productivity and low morale) by failing to address the situation at all and choosing to ignore the unsettling workplace dynamics at the expense of others.

Individuals who are concerned about the mental health of a coworker need to come forward. Leaders who receive good faith reports of concern (with detailed examples to “back up” the generalizations) have a legal duty to inquire into these concerns and implement measures to make the workplace safe for everyone.

While employees with diagnosed mental illness are entitled to reasonable workplace accommodations, they, too, have a concomitant obligation to actively participate in the proposed solutions, by complying with clear and firm expectations or acceptable workplace behaviour, participating in approved medical treatment and otherwise.

How this plays out, in a given situation, depends on the particular facts at hand.

Below, is a quick and very general overview of two very different approaches to mental illness – one that is constructive and works towards striking the proper, practical and considerate balance for everyone involved; and the other that is destructive and works to divide the team and destroy its integrity and success.

We all need to pick up the “mirror” and reflect on whether our actions and attitudes – in relation to mental health – are insightful or incite-ful and work to ensure we find ourselves on the “left hand side” of the columns below.



1.     Understanding that the vast majority of mental illness does not trigger disrespectful workplace behaviour/communication (that is, many individuals who suffer from mental illness are very respectful towards others); and conversely, understanding that the majority of significant workplace dysfunction is caused by culpable behaviour that continues and worsens only because the person has not been held accountable by his/her leaders. 1.     Assuming that inappropriate conduct and communication is the result of mental illness, “excusing” the behaviour on this basis and allowing it to continue, holding other team members “emotional or psychological hostages” to the unacceptable workplace behaviour.  Not surprisingly, this often results in the “recipients” of the dysfunctional behaviour becoming mentally unwell themselves.


2.     When first observing  or experiencing “concerning” behaviour by colleagues or staff members, approaching them in a discreet and respectful manner to describe how they are coming across and how their behaviour is affecting others (with some constructive examples) and then inquiring into their wellbeing (that is “How are you? Is everything OK?”). 2.     Talking about colleagues behind their backs, with others, in a disrespectful, discriminatory and overly dramatic manner (“He’s Crazy”, “She’s off her Meds”, He’s Going to Go Postal”), speculating about the situation and responding with panic, fear and histrionics, resulting in potential discrimination against the specific individual as well as those who suffer from mental illness generally.
3.     Staff reporting concerns to leaders, providing clear examples of behaviours/communication that are an issue and then actively being part of the solution. 3.     Staff approaching leaders with vague labels and generalized concerns/fears about their colleague, demanding an “immediate change” and then adding the caveat that they will not participate in any type of investigative/remedial process.
4.     Leaders objectively reviewing the concerns brought forward (or directly observed) by having an early, direct and transparent discussion with the person, providing specifics of the concerns and allowing the person a full and fair opportunity to be heard and respond. 4.     Leaders avoiding the “direct discussion” altogether and allowing the behaviour to continue; OR blindly accepting and acting on the fears and reports of others without first giving the individual an equal opportunity to participate.
5.     Leaders asking the staff member whether there are underlying factors (personal, medical or otherwise) that may be contributing to the current behaviours (not to justify the behaviours continuing but to better understand what is happening to and for the person involved). 5.     Leaders assuming that the unacceptable behaviour is (or is not ) the result of mental health issues, “self-diagnosing” the individual and shying away from making direct inquiries into an individual’s well-being and overall fitness for work.
6.     Leaders taking whatever steps are necessary to properly inquire into mental health concerns, including the proper and discreet collection and consideration of expert medical information and, in serious situations, the facilitation of an independent psychiatric assessment. 6.     Incorrectly assuming that “nothing can be done” due to privacy or health laws, ignoring the situation at the peril of the team and “crossing one’s fingers” hoping that nothing serious happens, while simultaneously shunning, isolating and avoiding the person altogether.


This is one of the most complex – yet most important – topics to tackle in the field of workplace dysfunction.  Each team member is legally entitled to a safe and respectful workplace.  The fact that someone suffers from a mental illness does abrogate this right.  However, the fact that someone suffers from a mental illness does not abrogate his/her right to due process and a workplace free from discrimination and harassment.

It is critical that leaders take considered and timely action in the face of suspected or confirmed mental health concerns.  Be insightful, not incite-ful.

– Marli Rusen

Contact Marli to discuss specific situations with which you and your team are faced to better learn how to achieve workplace respect for all.

Are you hearing words like “bullying”, “toxic” and “harassment” being used to describe behaviour by a particular team member or leader? If so, the MIRROR Method course is exactly what you need.
Introductory MIRROR Method Workshops are running in Prince George – Oct 20,  Victoria – Oct 21, Parksville – Oct 28 and Vancouver – Nov 3.

Subscribe to our newsletter today to receive helpful tips, resources and, of course, our latest blog posts.