People with, or a History of, a Psychiatric Disability
Psychiatric disabilities cover a wide range of behavioral, emotional, or psychological conditions. These include anxiety disorders, major depression, bi-polar disorders, (formerly called manic-depressive illness), schizophrenia, as well as, personality, disassociative and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Not all causes of psychiatric disabilities are known, but it is generally believed that these disorders are due to a combination of biochemical, psychological, and environmental factors. They can interfere with a person’s ability to think, feel, and interact with or relate to other people and the environment. Many of these conditions can be treated successfully with medication and treatment.
Psychiatric disabilities are often not apparent. Supervisors will probably not know whether an employee has a psychiatric disability unless he or she chooses to disclose it. Supervisors should be aware, though, that a noticeable change in a person’s work habits, level of accomplishment, quality of work, or interpersonal relationships with colleagues and managers, may be an indication of a psychiatric disability. Supervisors and managers are encouraged to seek guidance and assistance from the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the Equal Opportunity Programs Office (EOPO) if they notice these changes.
The symptoms of psychiatric disabilities manifest themselves differently depending on the type of disorder and the unique traits and support systems of the individual. For example, some workers with psychiatric disabilities find it difficult to concentrate while workers who take medications to control their psychiatric symptoms may experience side effects such as hand tremors, excessive thirst, or blurred vision. Some individuals report difficulty in focusing on multiple tasks simultaneously, particularly amid noise and distractions. Other employees find it difficult or impossible just to get out of bed and come to work.
While it is not unusual for many people to feel anxious during times of stress, people with anxiety disorders experience feelings of excessive anxiety and overwhelming fears that interfere with their usual daily activities. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as social and other phobias.
Depression is probably the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disability. Clinical depression is characterized by a loss of energy, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, and feelings of hopelessness that are experienced continually for more than two weeks. Depressive illnesses include major depression, dysthymic disorder, atypical depression, and manic depression/bi-polar disorder.
Schizophrenia is among the more severe forms of psychiatirc disability. It generally refers to a psychotic disorder characterized by a loss of contact with the environment and a disintegration of personality. Even though this condition cannot be cured, it can be controlled with medication and psychotherapy.
Psychiatric disability does not affect a person’s intelligence. However, sometimes during adjustment periods to medications, people with psychiatric disabilities may appear lethargic. Some people with psychiatric disabilities may experience difficulties with their attention span or discussing topics that produce anxiety. Some individuals may have difficulty processing or expressing emotions or might overreact to emotionally charged topics. All of these behaviors can result in miscommunication.
Although some psychiatric disabilities include symptoms of aggressive behavior, people with these disabilities are generally no more violent than anyone else. If violent behaviors are part of a person’s specific condition, they can usually be controlled with medication and psychotherapy.
Applicants and employees are often deterred from discussing their psychiatric disabilities with employers because of the stigma often associated with these disorders. Disclosure is a personal decision on the part of the worker that involves many factors including trust, comfort with others in the workplace, job security, and the perceived open-mindedness and support of the immediate supervisor.
Sometimes it is difficult to share an office if you have a psychiatric disability because of the communication and interpersonal dynamics of having an office mate. Therefore, if possible, it might be better for an employee with a psychiatric disability to have his or her own office.
Be sensitive to requests for a flexible work schedule to allow the person to attend medical appointments and therapy sessions and to deal with medication issues, insomnia, fatigue, or other conditions that often accompany psychiatric disabilities.
Through your own behavior and demeanor, show that you trust the individual’s ability to control his or her behavior.
Integrate the person fully into office activities.
If the person makes an occasional odd statement, try to just agree or let the comment pass. Simply help redirect the person to the topic or task.
Minimize stress for the employee as much as possible.
Approach each employee with an open mind about his or her strengths and abilities.
Convey important information objectively and avoid using sarcasm and giving mixed messages. Talk to the individual in a calm and relaxed manner. Make sure that any instructions are defined carefully and clearly. Repeat or summarize information and write it down for the person’s reference when needed. Explain things even though they may seem obvious to you.
Clearly express expectations for performance. Maintain continuous communication with the individual, providing timely feedback on a regular basis. Do not assume the employee knows when he or she is doing either well or poorly.