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Human Resources

Higher ed employees can support struggling co-workers

Training helps staff spot the mental illness and substance abuse that likely exists on campus
University Business, May 2018

Although 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.

Seeing signs

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,” Bohley says.

Participants learn how employee performance issues or disciplinary problems may indicate mental illness or substance abuses. 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.

Beyond counseling

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,” Elliot-Cheslek says.

The workshop stresses that among a supervisor’s responsibilities is taking action before an employee harms themselves or others, Elliot-Cheslek says.

Proactive hotlines

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 high-risk situations.

“Many schools have referral programs but keep their information in their own departmental silos,” Alvarez says. “We’re a hub to gather information and assess 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 your campus. 


Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.