Millions of people are affected by mental health issues and mental illness in the United States. When we talk about mental illness, this is a general term which includes conditions such as:
- Anxiety, mood disorders, bipolar, schizophrenia, and other such illnesses.
Mental health problems can affect how an individual thinks, feels, behaves — and also how they communicate and interact with others. Many people get treatment and have a successful recovery.
- According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in every five (46.6 million) American adults experience mental illness each year.
- One in 25 adults (11.2 million) has a serious mental illness which interferes substantially or limits major activities in their everyday life.
It is highly likely that at some point in your real estate brokerage, you will work with a person suffering from mental illness.
What You and Your Team Should Know
People with mental illnesses can be found across a diverse range of workplaces and industries. They can have successful careers and lives. Unless a worker discloses they have a mental illness, you may not even realize they have one.
There are some misconceptions about people who are suffering from mental illness, which should be dispelled among your team:
- Mental illness does not necessarily mean an individual has less intellectual abilities than a person without mental illness. Many people are very high-functioning in the workplace.
- Not all people with mental illness exhibit violent behaviors. This is only an issue for a very small percentage, and is usually when a person is experiencing a psychotic episode that is untreated.
Some staff may not disclose their mental illness, while others may be upfront about their illness. The symptoms will not always be obvious, especially where individuals are receiving adequate medication and treatment. Many symptoms, such as problems concentrating, decreased interest in work, or fatigue, are common in the workplace and can simply be a result of someone having a bad day. However, look out for patterns of behavior over a long-term period, as this could be an indicator of an underlying issue.
How to Protect Yourself From a Lawsuit
An unhealthy workplace can exacerbate symptoms for a person with an existing mental illness, or it can be the cause of mental illness or milder mental health problems developing in people who were previously well.
To protect yourself and your real estate business against a lawsuit, you need to be aware of what is required under the law…
Occupational Safety and Health Act
As a business owner, you have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace for your staff and to minimize the risks of injury and illness. But according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the US Department of Labor, “Mental illness will not be considered work-related unless the employee voluntarily provides the employer with an opinion from a physician or other licensed health care professional with appropriate training and experience (psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, etc.) stating that the employee has a mental illness that is work-related.”
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of mental health impairments and conditions, among other things. It can be applied to any aspect of employment, including recruitment and selection, terminating staff, pay equity or any other condition of employment.
Under the ADA, It is illegal to harass an applicant or employee on the basis that they have a disability, or have had a disability in the past. This includes a physical or mental impairment.
It’s also worth noting that the ADA’s definition of “disability” includes both permanent and temporary mental illness.
The ADA covers employers with 15+ employees. But that doesn’t mean you have a license to discriminate if you have a business with less staff. There is other anti-discrimination legislation you will need to comply with.
If you have less than 15 employees, or you have real estate agents on contract as independent contractors, the ADA will not apply. To help you satisfy all obligations under the law when it comes to dealing with people with disabilities — including mental illness — check out a Guide to Disability Rights Laws.
Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace
Legal obligations aside, there are many reasons why you should create a safe and supportive work environment at your real estate brokerage. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year. Research suggests there is a strong connection between wellbeing and work productivity. By setting up supports for staff with mental illness — and promoting positive mental health — you can avoid costs and legal battles in the long-term, reduce staff turnover, and increase productivity and staff loyalty to your business.
Supporting a Team Member with Mental Illness
Mental health can be affected when hazardous factors exist in the workplace. This includes:
- Low level or no support structures in place (i.e., do struggling employees have someone they can go to for help with work-related tasks?)
- Negative workplace relationships
- Poor workplace environment
- High level of stress within the organization
- Traumatic events or violence
When stress levels are high for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to work-related mental illness and psychological injuries. While it’s often hard to spot when a team member is suffering from mental illness, watch out for these signs. If you identify a trend or pattern, speak with the individual and offer support where needed:
- Withdrawal and lack of interest, when the team member is usually enthusiastic about his or her work
- Poor quality of work
- Unplanned leave, including an uptick in sick leave
- High highs and low lows in terms of mood and behavior
- Showing signs of anxiousness, fear, or anger
In situations where you’re worried about a team member, encourage them to see their doctor, a counselor, or someone they trust to talk about how they’re feeling.
If a team member says they have a mental illness, keep in mind that mental illness can be treated. If the individual has the right medication and support, they can lead a successful and happy life and career. Be sure to communicate without judgment — don’t let stereotypes and biases influence the way you deal with your team members. Mental illness shouldn’t be treated any differently to any other injury.
During the performance management process, focus on the outcomes, not the issues. For example:
Instead of saying “This property description you provided about x property is terrible”, say “Quality property descriptions help to sell houses. What do you need to improve your property description writing in the future?”
Be clear about your expectations and supportive in your tone, and most of all, remember that mental illness can affect anyone.
Insurance Protection for Real Estate Brokers
To make sure your business is protected in the case of a lawsuit, contact CRES for an insurance check-up. We are real estate insurance experts and can provide you with valuable advice about your coverage. We’ll tailor an insurance package to suit the needs of your real estate office.
With CRES E&O + ClaimPrevent ®, you’ll not only get superior coverage, but you’ll also have access to legal assistance 7 days a week. For more information, contact the CRES team on 800-880-2747 for a confidential discussion.