What do you do when you suspect a staff member of reduced capacity due to degenerative or mental illness?

Early onset Alzheimers can have devastating consequences and be very hard to identify and even more difficult to broach as a subject.

Some of the signs may include:

  • An employee becoming frustrated in their role because they are struggling to acquire, store or recall information
  • Difficulty learning new things
  • Reduced attention span
  • Incapacity to see routine tasks through to completion if there is any interruption
  • Having trouble with making sound, logical judgements

These signs are more readily identifiable in someone who you have previously noted had these capacities.

Some of the ways that this disease may manifest itself include:

  • Not remembering appointments
  • Erratic behaviour and difficulty making a decision
  • Extreme fatigue – needing constant rests
  • Forgetting commonplace words in their speech
  • Trouble calculating payments or working out figures
  • Becoming disorientated and forgetting how to get to places that they are familiar with
  • Forgetting how to use regular equipment in the office
  • Not remembering people that they have previously or regularly engaged with

The attached information sheet from Alzheimer’s Australia on Employment makes for interesting reading. https://fightdementia.org.au/sites/default/files/helpsheets/Helpsheet-YoungerOnsetDementia06-Employment_english.pdf

How do you bring this up if you suspect it and the staff member has not advised you of a diagnosis?

  • Stick to the facts and evidence based on identification of issues – Example: Tom – I can’t help notice that you are forgetting details of many of our conversations lately.  I’ll give you an example:  Yesterday I asked you about 17 Brown Street and the water damage from the flooding last week.  You appeared to be unsure of what I was talking about even though we had had a long and detailed meeting concerning this property the day before.  In another incident I had asked you to re-arrange an Open for Inspection on 10 James Street, but when I checked with you the next day, this had not been done, and again you appeared not to remember the first discussion.  I know we all forget things from time to time – particularly when the pressure is on, but this is not usual for you and I am concerned.  Is there anything that you can think of that may be impacting on your ability to remember at the moment?
  • Be empathetic and explain how their current work practices/behaviour is different to your previous observation
  • Ask them if they have any reason for this – it could be that personal problems are distracting them or that they might be unwell for other reasons
  • If they are unable to offer any explanation – tell them that you care about them and how they are coping and suggest that they go and have a general check-up to see if there are any underlying causes. You could even give them something in writing to take to their Doctor that provides information on your observation of their skills, memory or ability deteriorating so that they have something to show the Doctor as evidence of any help with diagnosis.

People with dementia are protected in the workplace by the same laws that protect people with disabilities and Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to support employees inflicted with this disease to continue in their roles.  However the Employer is not required to change the duties of the role or to offer a new job if there is no scope in their operation to do this.  The nature of the role would be examined and the risks and consequences would be taken into effect.

Alzheirmer’s Australia recommend the following HR strategies:

  • Employers should be encouraged to enable employees who receive a diagnosis to remain employed albeit perhaps at a different level and possibly with greater supervision. We know that people prefer to avoid changes in their environment and have some comfort in being able to do the things with which they may be familiar. So staying within the same working environment with people that are known is probably the preferable solution.
  • Employers should not tell the person they need to leave the workplace simply due to their diagnosis, but rather that the symptoms of their dementia are considered in the context of their role in the workplace.
  • Employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments for a person living with dementia to remain in work. Remaining in the work force can be very beneficial for the person with dementia, as it can slow the progression of dementia by keeping the brain active and socially engaged, giving the person a sense of purpose and routine.
  • When many people think of dementia, they immediately think of the end stages of the condition. People living with dementia have told us that friends and family often withdraw because they don’t understand the condition or how to involve the person with dementia. If this happens in the workplace where colleagues avoid the person with dementia because they don’t understand dementia or how to communicate with the person or involve them anymore, this can leave the person feeling socially isolated and it’s the period following a diagnosis of dementia when they need the support and encouragement of their colleagues the most.

Mental Health Illness is even more difficult as there are so many medical conditions that can have an impact on someone’s work effectiveness – from quite minor to very severe.  Given the high level of occurrence of mental illness in our community it is highly likely that you will need to supervise or manage a person who suffers from some form of mental health issue during your career.

Mental Illness refers to a group of illnesses which may include:

  • Mood disorders (Depression or Bi-Polar)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Psychotic Disorders (Schizophrenia or some forms of Bi-Polar)

The key to most of these situations is early intervention and open and frank communication.  There needs to be at least one person in a senior role in any business who can be approached by staff with issues of concern about their mental well-being or general health without fear of recrimination.  Having an open door policy where staff feel secure enough to talk about issues that they may be facing can help you identify strategies early to assist someone who has a mental health issue.

Most people can successfully manage their mental illness without it impacting on their work and only require a short period of time away from their normal job to recharge and recuperate.  When the business environment is very stressful or problematic – this recovery time can be longer and occur with greater frequency.  It is therefore important – for everyone’s sake, that care is taken to evaluate the workloads and stress levels of all staff.

The Australian Human Rights Commission research shows that 3.2 days per annum is lost per worker for reasons directly related to workplace stress.  This equates to a loss of over $6.5 Billion per annum for Australian businesses.

As part of our Employer obligations we are expected to create and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.  This includes reducing, and where possible, eliminating the risk of mental illness.

One of the ways to do this is to actively talk about and promote mental health awareness and strategies for minimising mental illness.  Another way is to ensure that your business has effective systems in place that incorporate efficiencies and structure to help people be more organised and less stressed.

What to do if you suspect a Staff Member has Mental Illness

In the same way that we discussed approaching a person who you suspect has Alzheimers or another degenerative disease – you are best to provide examples of the changes that you have noted in the person’s capacity or conduct in a measured and objective way.  For an example:

Julie – I have noticed a change in the way you are responding to people around you over the last few weeks.  Your normal demeanour is happy, positive and helpful however lately I have noticed, on a number of occasions, that you are non-responsive to people when they speak to you and that you appear withdrawn or easily distressed.  Yesterday you were in tears after a Tenant complained about a maintenance request not being actioned quickly.  I am concerned about you and want to help you.  Nothing at work should be making you feel that uncomfortable or sad.  Is there anything happening in your life that would account for this change and is there anything that we can do to support you or help you?”

It is important to note that an Employee is under no obligation to disclose information about their Mental illness.  In some cases they make a conscious decision not to disclose usually on the basis that they believe that they can manage their job or they are fearful of being discriminated against in some way – e.g. not being promoted or denied other employment opportunities, etc.

If your staff member does disclose their illness to you then you can:

  • Evaluate what assistance you can provide them in terms of adjusting their workload (temporarily or permanently); and/or
  • Offering to help them locate some confidential support from an outside provider with this expertise

If the illness is impacting on other staff due to long periods of absence or through unusual behaviour other staff may become angry or resentful that you are not appearing to take appropriate action.

In this situation you need to respect the privacy of the staff member who has a mental health illness and provide support to other staff to help them cope with the extra burden of work due to absenteeism.

Wherever possible seek permission from the person with mental health illness to disclose this information to their colleagues while ensuring your support. This will enable you to explain your actions and enlist the support and empathy from their colleagues.  It will also explain why you are seemingly providing preferential treatment to one staff member over another.

Anti-discrimination legislation protects people with disability by requiring employers to make “reasonable adjustments”.  But what are “reasonable adjustments”?

Basically they are changes that enable a worker with a disability to perform their job more effectively.  These could include:

  • Flexible working arrangements
  • Change of duties or a reallocation of duties within the team to relieve the staff member from high stress tasks
  • Changing their physical work environment

There is a wonderful government resource “Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers” that helps identify how and what reasonable adjustments can be made and a list of services and schemes that may assist you at: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/workers_mental_illness_guide_0.pdf



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