How to Legally and Professionally Respond to Employee Mental Health Illnesses
Mental health illnesses, including addiction, bipolar disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, will affect 1 in 5 adults this year. If you’re an employer, this translates to 20% of your staff personally experiencing a mental health crisis throughout the year. Managing employee mental health issues in the workplace can be a balancing act of sorts for employers. Accommodating an employee’s needs, without crossing any legal lines, while maintaining profitable production levels can be taxing to say the least.
Luckily, the stigma associated with mental illnesses is decreasing as more young people enter the workforce. It’s easier than ever to support employees struggling with mental health illnesses. Employers in all industries can use the following practical tips to create an environment that supports employee mental health.
Know your legal responsibilities
Employees are not legally required to disclose mental illnesses. But should an employee inform you of their mental illness and ask for special accommodations, there are steps you should take to protect both you and your employee.
The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits discrimination against mental and psychological disorders. This includes intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and diagnosed mental or emotional illnesses.
Mental health conditions are still protected under the ADA even if stabilized with treatment and/or medication. Because the law requires employers to consider reasonable accommodations, it’s best to obtain medical documentation to first verify a disability, and then make appropriate adjustments to their work routine and requirements.
Takeaway: As an employer, you’re not required to, nor should you, ask an interviewee, new hire, or current employee about their mental health status. But should an employee approach you and present a mental health illness diagnosis, you’re required to work with them to find a solution.
Once an employee makes it known they require support, it’s time to act. Work with the employee’s health practitioner and seek legal counsel before making any decisions.
Depending on your employee’s illness and their doctor’s recommendations, there are several actions you can take to make their workday more manageable. These include, but are not limited to:
- Ability to schedule therapy and appointments during the workday
- Quiet work environment
- Work from home arrangements
- Reduction in hours
- Adjustment to management methods
- Time off
For example, if you have an employee who struggles with panic attacks, and crowded office meetings are a trigger, allowing them to either sit near the door or listen in on speakerphone from their office is an accommodation that helps your employee without slowing down productivity.
If an employee asks for time off, you can either grant available sick time, or consider FMLA for longer requests. Keep in mind that there are stipulations for FMLA (such as the size of your company and how many hours an employee has worked) so always confirm with a legal source or HR representative before granting time away.
Takeaway: Employees typically want to work with their employers to find a solution. Keep an open mind when it comes to accommodations and always confirm workday adjustments and extended time off with an HR representative or legal counsel.
Keep the conversation going
Over 25% of adults have taken a day off work due to a mental health issue, but lied to their superiors about the reason they didn’t come in. Nearly 60% of adults aren’t comfortable telling their employer about a diagnosed mental health illness while only a fifth believe their employer would be supportive.
These statistics point to an epidemic in today’s work culture. If we want to erase the stigma surrounding mental health and create environments where companies and employees alike can thrive, we need to make mental health a priority. This starts with talking about employee mental health in an open and honest manner. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
- Train management and lead team members in mental health awareness and support practices.
- Take a stand against all types of discrimination, including that against employees struggling with mental health issues.
- Make mental health management tools and opportunities available to your staff. These could include adequate break times, exercise opportunities, and information on meditation and mindfulness.
- Work with an EAP (Employee Assistance Program). An EAP can provide employees with short-term counseling, work-life solutions to lower stress levels, or additional services that provide clarity and promote healthy change.
Takeaway: Make mental health a welcomed and safe topic in the workplace. Lead by example and have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination or bullying. Encourage employees to take care of their mental health the same as they would their physical ailments.
As an employer, you’re not expected to treat or prevent mental illness. But you are responsible for creating a safe environment where employees can feel confident and supported as they manage their mental health.
By remaining committed to making employee mental health a priority in the workplace, you’ll be benefiting both your team and business.