When Office Gossip Gets Personal

Q. I just started working here and was told that one of the guys on our team is bipolar or schizophrenic. Should I avoid him, or tell him I know? Is this the kind of thing where I can help, or should I be worried? I don’t want any problems on the job.

Starting at a new company involves learning information about the expectations of the job, the culture, manager’s style and colleagues. In addition to a formal onboarding, new colleagues may have a tendency to share various rumors disguised as casual conversation. New employees need to assess who gives out what kind of information and why. In any new environment, you will need to assess hidden agendas, political issues, confidentiality and trust, and who tells you what and why. The motives behind discussing a colleagues mental or physical health should be suspect.

I consulted with Kathleen Greer, Chairman of KGA, an Employee Assistance Program who notes, “Millions of American workers are affected with mental health issues and are able to work productively. Like any illness – mental or physical- you wouldn’t ask about a personal situation based on a rumor you heard.” She suggests to, “Treat this person the same as you would any other colleague and expect that his work will be no different than your own.”

People have the right to privacy surrounding many aspects of their personal lives including medical conditions and you want to be considerate of that. In this situation there is no need to offer help. If you want to be supportive of the larger issue, you can help everyone with any kind of mental illness by not spreading rumors, or participating in the conversations. Rumors of any kind, especially about one’s medical and physical health, are especially hurtful because of the many preconceived notions based on a lack of knowledge.
If you want to talk to someone confidentially, call your companies EAP, where social workers and other mental health professionals can address your concerns, and address the realities of mental illness. In these conversations you can address the fears you may have in a safe place without contributing to the rumor mill.
There is no reason to be afraid of anyone’s behavior. If there are actual events to make you fear for your safety, then it makes sense to approach your manager or human resources.
-Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner, Keystone Partners
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