University Business May 2018 - 16
Employees can support
Training helps staff spot the mental illness and substance abuse that likely exists on campus
By Carol Patton
lthough employee assistance
programs are an important
benefit, they are also often a
lifeline for people with mental health or
substance abuse issues.
Considering that 1 in 6 U.S. adults
lives with a mental illness (44.7 million
in 2016), and nearly half of adults have
a friend or family member with a drug
problem, a portion of your workforce
may well be struggling.
Some schools now offer training
to complement employee assistance
programs. Employees learn to better
understand mental illness, to recognize
coworkers or family members who may
be in trouble, and to encourage people
to get help.
Approximately two years ago, The University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill introduced Mental Health First Aid
to its 12,000 faculty and staff. The national, eight-hour training course helps
employees recognize and respond to
signs of mental illness or substance use,
either at home or in the workplace.
So far, 1,300 employees have completed the voluntary program, says Tara
Bohley, a clinical assistant professor in
the university's School of Social Work.
"My goal is to make this a mandatory part of new employee orientation,"
16 | May 2018
Participants learn how employee
performance issues or disciplinary
problems may indicate mental illness or
The workshop stresses that among
a supervisor's responsibilities is taking
action before an employee harms themselves or others, Elliot-Cheslek says.
Some managers worry that
employees referred for
help could be terminated,
but a supervisor needs
to take action before
themselves or others.
In 2011, Colorado State University
introduced "Tell Someone" to its workforce and the local community. If someone suspects a colleague might be in
distress, they can report it online or call
a safety hotline.
"It offers us an opportunity for early
intervention," says Josh Alvarez, assistant director for support and safety
assessments at the university. "We place
supports around that person so they are
able to do their job without negatively
impacting the people around them."
In the second half of 2017, Alvarez'
office received more than 300 reports,
ranging from intoxicated workers to
employees acting erratically. Typically,
the office handles low- to medium-risk
issues, notifies HR if the problem is
work-based and contacts authorities in
"Many schools have referral programs but keep their information in
their own departmental silos," Alvarez
says. "We're a hub to gather information
and assesse risk."
Take your cue from these schools.
Don't end up wondering what else you
could or should have done if there's a
suicide, fatal accident or shooting on
Follow-up surveys show those participating in Mental Health First Aid
made 39 referrals during the program's
first year, and 407 the following year.
Perhaps even more important, 196 of
the 407 sought professional help.
For the past decade, Washington State
University has included a 90-minute
section on addiction and mental illness
in its mandatory "Workplace Concerns"
workshop. It covers strategies to approach co-workers who may be in distress and how not to make assumptions
about behavior that could be tied to legitimate medical conditions, says Teresa
Elliot-Cheslek, associate vice president
and chief HR officer at the school.
"We don't want our managers to be
mental health counselors but do want
them to be able to identify a problem
and get people the help they need,"
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who
specializes in human resources issues.
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