Playing ‘Doctor’ with Employees

With the recent gun violence debate, the issue has been raised about allowing guns to be issued to people who are not mentally fit.  Regardless of one’s stance on gun control, it is a fact that guns do not kill people, people do.  And more often than not, it is crazy people who kill other people.  If we wish to keep crazy people from getting guns, the issue becomes how to identify crazy people and their relative danger to society, while not violating their rights, HIPPA or otherwise.

Let me back this up a bit and move away from the gun issue and on to something closer to home for us HR professionals: mental illness in the workplace.  Here is my story.

My company had an employee who had been with the company about 3 or 4 years.  We will call her Sally.  Sally was quirky, but a pretty good employee for those 3 or 4 years.  Toward the end of this period Sally started having a decrease in performance and tended to spend a lot of time speaking about her personal problems, which were increasing.  It got to a point where other staff members would hesitate to stop by her work space because they did not have the time (or energy) to sit with her.

Watch and wait

As the quirkiness increased and began to be manifest in her performance, it was quite clear to me that Sally was struggling with some type of mental illness.  Unfortunately, these types of problems are “off limits” for employers because of legal protection and the continuing assumption that admission of mental illness or psychological struggles is a stigma.  Had Sally broken her leg skiing, we would have signed her cast and wished her well, but with this mental degradation, all we could do was watch and wait for performance failures that merited termination.

Eventually, Sally had a “breakdown”.  While this was apparent to us, Sally kept stating that she was “just tired” and could work through it.  We worked with Sally to adapt her schedule to her stated issue of “fatigue” and because she had been a valuable employee, we kept this up for about six weeks.  Sally would work a day, call in a day, work a day, take a half-day off, etc.  We adapted just like we would have for a parent with a sick child.  Each day, we hoped that Sally would show and be “better”.  But this never happened.

Playing “doctor”

After about six weeks, I simply decided that I had to play doctor, issue a legal diagnosis, and protect my company and its employees.  Taking the “safe” route, I notified Sally that she was no longer capable of performing her job as required and that she was terminated.  Trust me. Given the way in which Sally had clung to her job despite her failing health, we feared what might happen when we gave her the news.  Would she be suicidal?  Would she grow violent?  We had no idea because we had no clue and could not legally obtain a clue as to what was actually wrong.

As we moved through post-mortem on this, we found out the following.  About the time, we started adapting to Sally’s fatigue issues, Sally’s doctor had indeed ordered her to stop work, so that she could GET WELL.  But Sally did not tell us and the doctor was not allowed to communicate this fact to us.  He assumed she was at home and we assumed (legally) that she was overcoming a mild reaction to stress, manifested in fatigue.  How frightening!  Because we were not allowed to ask and the doctor was not allowed to say, we were operating in compassion, but also total blindness.  In trying to be a good employer, we quite possibly could have been making her condition worse.

Later, through Sally’s mother, we found out that Sally was checked into some type of rehabilitation facility to get well because she was that sick.  Sally’s mother also (nonchalantly) stated that this was the fifth or sixth time this had happened in Sally’s life!  Now, I am very happy that Sally received the care she needed.  However, I am angry that the system vehemently protected Sally, but did not protect my company or my employees.  You can imagine the consequences had Sally been violent or had our efforts to “keep her working through her fatigue” caused a complete failure in her health.

Gun control or no gun control, we need to find a way to fairly identify those people whose mental illness prevents them from working or living safely and productively.  We cannot protect a minority of the population while putting the great majority at risk.

What do you think? How do you handle situations like Sally’s in your workplace?


* updated 2/20/13

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