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Effective workplace communication with employees with psychiatric disability


Talking about quality and quantity

The complex nature of the impact of psychiatric disability may mean that the employee needs assistance to meet the quality and productivity standards consistently.

Disability employment services must operate as viable businesses competing with other businesses to make revenue to enable them to employ and pay their workers. To do this, employment services must set and achieve productivity targets and ensure the quality of the goods and services they provide.

All employees need to know they have a responsibility to:


Quality means that the product, service, process or outcome, meets the standard set or expected by the user or consumer. When you are communicating with supported employees about the abstract concept 'quality' you need to:


Similarly, we can assist employees understand productivity requirements by bringing the abstract 'quantity' down to the simpler and more concrete 'how much' or 'how many'.

Again, your communication should:

The impact of motivation

Many forms of mental illness impair motivation to the point that affected people feel no interest or desire to meet targets or goals.

Mood and anxiety disorders and schizophrenic disorders can all have low motivation as a symptom. The low level of motivation is much more than the 'lows' everyone experiences at some time (for example, not feeling like going to work today) or 'laziness', though it is frequently seen that way. There is an overall indifference to what is happening and the person has no control over this. One long term sufferer of depression described his lack of motivation this way.

'I felt exactly like a wind-up toy that had wound itself down; there was no way I could wind myself up again into any activity at all'.

Consequently, the employee with psychiatric disability may show little interest in meeting quality and quantity goals.


Martina is 25 years old. She is tall and very thin, and she is very sad. Martina says she has problems with 'too many thoughts'. One day recently she said, 'You might think about an ashtray, and just think, oh! yes, that's for putting my cigarette in. I would think of it and then I would think of 20 or 30 different things connected with it at the same time. My concentration is very poor … if I am talking to someone, they only need to cross their legs or scratch their head and I am distracted and forget what I'm saying. So there's really nothing I can do any more …'.

From Em's notebook

Martina is showing no interest in anything lately. She says she wants to go on working here but she hasn't actually done any work at all for nearly two weeks now. When she comes in, she props herself at the table and will just sit, not saying anything. She's quite polite and will try to explain things to you if you ask why she hasn't started the job. But she doesn't even talk to anyone unless they directly ask her a question. I've noticed at breaks, too, she doesn't talk to anyone, just sits out on the lawn and smokes cigarette after cigarette.


  1. Build self-worth. Self esteem is the great motivator in life. It is built by feelings of competence (being good at things), belonging (fitting in with others), and autonomy (doing things for yourself). Many people with psychiatric disability have low self-esteem.

You can help an employee develop better self-esteem by finding something they can do well. There will be something. Don't ask what it is (they'll believe there's nothing because they have no sense of their own worth). Find out for yourself and then tell them. When you tell someone there is something they do well, they start to feel valued.

  1. Provide an open and welcoming work environment. Employees with psychiatric disability need to feel comfortable disclosing information about themselves (My concentration is very poor … I can't keep my thoughts on the one thing for long …), and seeking assistance (I need to be reminded about how many I need to do each hour).

I see you're having trouble with this. Do you want to talk about it?

Is there anything you think we could do to make this easier for you?

You say you can't concentrate – is that just on this task or …?

We have 400 of these to do this week – everyone loves this job and we have a great time all pitching in.

  1. Invite participation and self-monitoring. Involving the employee in strategies to improve their work performance will help develop a sense of worth and autonomy, and hence build motivation.

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