Skip to content

Table of contents | PDF Library

Effective workplace communication with employees with psychiatric disability


Talking about teams and workmates

Being part of a team and understanding what teamwork means is important in all workplaces. Helping people to develop the behaviours and attitudes that contribute to a team approach is an ongoing task.

Working involves getting on with others. We expect people to work cooperatively and contribute as team members. These skills are often difficult for people with psychiatric disability for a range of reasons.

Problems relating to other people

Employees with psychiatric disability may have trouble relating to other team members as a result of their disability. This will often be evident in the simplest interpersonal interactions. They may be suspicious of others (because they are experiencing feelings of paranoia), or be persistently negative in their opinions and attitudes. Many will find it hard to be relaxed with other people.

Impaired social skills

Employees with psychiatric disability, particularly those who are recovering from an episode of illness, will often feel awkward in social interactions because they can't keep up with conversation, or don't know what to say. They may not know how to make the appropriate response, or be able to judge its timing or effect. This can lead to errors like shouting or whispering, laughing at the wrong times, not taking turns in a conversation, or not 'opening' or 'closing' conversations in the conventional way.

Social withdrawal

Psychotic disorders will often cause social withdrawal and the person may remain isolated and alienated from others.


A new employee, Peter, recently joined Dougal on the team at Fred's Cakes. Dougal said nothing at first, and wouldn't look at Peter. If Nathan tried to engage the two in an activity or conversation, Dougal looked sideways, and closed his eyes saying, 'twenty-seven' repeatedly. This habit of repeating numbers (usually 27, sometimes 17) is another of Dougal's rituals that make him feel safe.

This week Nathan was most surprised when Dougal came up to him and handed him one of the packets of new gloves, and said, 'for Peter'.

From Nathan's notebook

I was surprised to see Dougal with gloves for Peter. I had been concerned about Dougal's initial reaction to Peter as he seemed hostile and unwelcoming.

I made a number of attempts early in the week to encourage Dougal and Peter in conversation, but Dougal retreated and Peter was uncomfortable. I noticed yesterday that Dougal was very quiet because he feels more secure when things are calm.

I hope that Dougal giving me the gloves for Peter indicates that he is accepting of Peter.


  1. Deal with negativity. Many people with psychiatric disability feel insecure and pessimistic about life. This sense of insecurity may be demonstrated in negative attitudes: they find it hard to believe they can do anything positive, or that anything good can happen. Help promote a more positive outlook by actively supporting the employee to see any positives and achieve, even the smallest target. For example, if Martina says, 'I couldn't do the catalogue job' reply with, You read so quickly and accurately, you can sort the catalogues faster than anyone else. You got distracted though – that's not your fault. Provide frequent feedback.
  2. Recognise learning needs. Social relationships are often severely disrupted by mental illness and the skills involved in building these relationships can be impaired. This takes effort and the person recovering from an illness needs to be encouraged wherever possible to practise these skills. Provide support and coaching to employees to assist them to learn the skills of social interaction. Report any signs of fluctuation in the interpersonal behaviour of an employee and be alert to any situations where you think an employee's behaviour is making demands upon others.
  3. Help build communication skills. Assess the employee's functional social skills. Do they know:

Then work on a plan to assist them to develop these skills.

Return to top