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Effective workplace communication with employees with psychiatric disability


Talking about tools

Almost every task a supported employee does involves the use of tools or equipment. Communicating clearly which tools to use, how to use them safely, and how to store or maintain them involves you in a mix of explaining, demonstrating and observing.

Supported employees need to know about the tools and equipment they use to do their job. This means knowing not just the name of the tool or piece of equipment but also that it is their responsibility to use it correctly, and ensure it is maintained properly. Supported employees need to know:

Learning all these things may not present too many problems for employees with psychiatric disability as an intellectual exercise unless their cognitive functioning is in some way impaired by their condition.

Ensure employees with psychiatric disability have structured training and practice in the use of tools and equipment. Make sure, too, that you consistently check to see if they need retraining in that use. This is especially important if the employee has a break from using particular tools or equipment.


Dougal's rituals and obsessions – such as his hand washing and pacing – are ways he has of reducing anxiety and fear. He can't help it, and more importantly, the fact that it helps him relieve his anxiety is generally a benefit to him. It has become a problem though that when he comes in each morning he cannot get started on his work until he has lined up his equipment exactly as he wants it.

It starts when he gets to his workbench. He picks up his pastry cutter and board, and the templates he will be using, and then proceeds to line each tool up in a set pattern that ensures each is exactly the same distance from each other and the edges of the bench. He will go on doing this until his Team Leader, Nathan, comes and tells him to stop. On some days, Dougal has continued straightening and measuring and straightening again for up to two hours.

Although Dougal can use the tools correctly, and knows what they are called, his work suffers because psychiatric disability affects his ability to use them.

From Nathan's diary

Dougal came in with Oscar this morning and we talked about him not being able to get started until he lines up his tools the way he thinks he needs to.

Oscar suggested we use a timer and give Dougal a set time each morning to do the line-up thing and when the time is up, he starts work. I asked what sort of time we should set and Oscar discussed this with Dougal. In the end, we agreed that he have ten minutes and then start work, whether he's happy with the line-up or not. I was quite surprised that Dougal nodded and seemed quite OK with the idea. We'll see how it goes. Anything is worth trying.


  1. Provide information. People with mental illness often feel very undervalued and uncertain about their progress and their future. In the workplace, you can assist by ensuring they have the information they need to go about their task. Don't 'talk down' to the employee. Provide not only the names and uses of tools and equipment but also explanations of why one thing is used rather than another. Enlarging their information base will positively influence understanding and even motivation. It will help the employee feel more responsible in their role.
  2. Avoid false reassurance. Don't tell the employee they have the right name or use for a tool when they do not. Don't tell them it doesn't matter if they don't know it. This can have the effect of minimising their feelings and making it even less likely that they will retain the information. Never assume an employee with psychiatric disability has failed to retain a skill or information because they are lazy or uncooperative. Psychiatric disability can cause variations in functioning from day to day, week to week.
  3. Avoid intrusive questioning. People with psychiatric disability are likely to become stressed if you fire rapid or probing questions at them.

Do you remember what this is called? Don't you remember? … We spoke about it yesterday … Do you remember? Why don't you remember? You knew its name yesterday. Why have you forgotten?

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