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Effectively managing the “meltdowns” and identifying the “slowburns”

Samuel A. Ball

Human resource executives manage sensitive situations on a daily basis but one of the more challenging is responding to a senior-level employee – including their own superiors – who may be suffering from alcoholism, depression, or other mental health problems. Contributor Samuel A. Ball, Director of Psychology and Executive Programs and Director of Research – Silver Hill Hospital.

When impairment is exhibited in a high-level employee, that person’s behavior can affect the safety, security, or satisfaction of employees, customers, or other stakeholders. Sometimes this impairment appears suddenly and dramatically and is viewed by colleagues or subordinates as a kind of “meltdown.”  However, many executives suffer more silently, and co-workers don’t or won’t acknowledge that anything is wrong. In contrast to the spectacle of a public “meltdown,” this slower deterioration of work performance and civility is more like a “slowburn.”  

Most organizations have procedures in place for managing the “meltdown” of a senior-level employee. Typically, the employee meets confidentially with the organization’s chief executive, general counsel, or perhaps an executive leader in risk management, human resources, or public affairs. An attempt is made to contain the “meltdown” quickly by placing the employee on temporary or extended work reassignment, leave of absence or immediate termination. In some cases, an impaired executive may undergo a behavioral health evaluation, begin treatment and eventually return to work. 

In contrast, most organisations do not have standard procedures for managing the “slowburn” problems of a senior-level employee with emerging behavioral health issues.  In fact, employees in positions of leadership, influence, and power can be the hardest to identify for these problems. People at different levels of the organisation will have varying degrees of awareness and concern about the senior-level executive’s performance deterioration. They may be unwilling to speak to the executive directly or share their concerns with human resources due to anxiety over job security, fear of retribution, and even denial of the situation. This results in a larger problem remaining undetected and usually worsening. 

Further contributing to this is the fact that executives often have staff whose livelihood depends on that person’s performance. Staff may cover up or unrealistically believe their leader knows how to deal with all kinds of problems. Executives also report to the most senior people (e.g., board, president, owner, general counsel) who don’t supervise the executive on a daily basis, making it easier for him or her to engage in unnoticed problematic behavior. 

As occupational leaders and role models at the top of their profession, it is also very difficult for these individuals and others to accept that they may be experiencing addiction or other mental illness. The stigma and discrimination associated with these behavioral health conditions is particularly severe for these individuals given their leadership roles. Senior-level executives see themselves as problem solvers, more stress tested and resilient, and less in need of help than the average employee. While employee assistance programs (EAPs) can be helpful in assessing, preventing, or intervening in the problems of some employees, higher level executives and professionals rarely utilise these services.      

When an executive finally admits to having a problem, he or she may be reluctant to seek help because of embarrassment, shame, and legitimate concerns about confidentiality, stigma, discrimination, and job security. They have a lot to lose and thus feel greater motivation to deny their problems and rationalise addictive, dangerous, or disruptive behaviors. 

The complexity of addiction and mental health problems among senior-level employees often requires that institutional leaders rely on psychiatric experts, usually outside the company, to recommend an intervention plan for evaluation and treatment. Without this expert consultation and plan, the response from the organisation won’t be as effective. This represents one of the more important barriers to treatment for the senior-level employee. 

Without a professional evaluation or knowledge of the most effective treatments, even well-intentioned HR executives and other corporate leaders trying to help or act compassionately may make mistakes. They may not appreciate how off-hours heavy drinking at business dinners or meetings could be impacting on-the-job performance. They may believe mistakenly that the problems can be solved by granting time off or not assigning new duties to reduce the heavy stress levels and burdens of leadership. They may make matters worse by keeping the problem “between the two of us” or think that confronting the person and directing him or her to cut back on drinking or get more rest will help them feel and perform better.

Earlier detection of mental illness and addiction can protect lives and save careers. A high level of organisational discretion is often necessary to protect the confidentiality of the leader as well as the public image of the company. However, the most common psychiatric disorders (mood, anxiety, substance use) are very treatable, often through a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and peer support. To make progress in this area, however, people’s attitudes in the workplace need to shift through greater education, de-stigmatising the problem, and increasing awareness about options for getting help. It is not acceptable or helpful to the individual, much less good for business, to delay intervention until a “meltdown” wreaks havoc on the organisation. Recognising and facilitating professional help for  performance problems or emotional outburst at the “slowburn” stage is not only compassionate, but  the most cost-effective and forward-thinking approach to serving the impaired executive.

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