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Mental Illness in the Workplace

Employers need to be aware of their obligations regarding employees' mental health. HR can help create a culture where mental health is part of an organization’s commitment to wellness—which can have a positive impact on workplace productivity.

Business and Legal Resources

on 30 April 2015

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Transcript of Mental Illness in the Workplace

In recognition of
Mental Health Month
, we are presenting information about employer legal obligations regarding employees' mental health and the benefits of creating a mental health friendly workplace.

Costs of mental illness for employers
Mental illness has a measurable impact on the business’ bottom line:
The annual, indirect cost of mental illness is about $79 billion—$63 billion of that total reflects lost productivity.

Legal obligations for employers
Employers need to be aware of their obligations under the the
Family & Medical Leave Act
Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA), and comparable state laws regarding their employees' mental health
Covers employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities, meaning a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the individual's major life activities. The ADA also obligates employers to provide a
reasonable accommodation
to an employee with a disability so that he or she can perform the essential functions of the job—unless to do so would cause an undue burden.
Creating a mental health friendly workplace
HR can have a pivotal role in dealing with mental health at work, from benefits, to disability accommodations, to dealing with lost productivity.
Understanding mental illness
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about
Mental illness in the Workplace
one in four American adults
suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.
Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S.—yet very few job applicants or employees openly discuss their mental illness due to a sense of shame or fear of stigma.
Mental illness can be treated and individuals diagnosed with mental illness can be productive employees, but lack of knowledge of treatment resources, cost of treatment, and the stigma associated with mental illness often stand in the way of obtaining care.
Mental illness is often associated with negative qualities from unreliability to a proclivity to violence, even though these stereotypes are unfounded. In fact, for the vast majority of individuals with a mental disorder, employment provides stability and a sense of self-worth that benefits recovery.
According to a BLR survey, a majority of employers have dealt with depression in the workplace, and close to half have had employees with substance abuse problems and anxiety disorder. Other mental health issues mentioned frequently were bipolar disorder, chronic stress, anxiety disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
According to a BLR survey, a majority of employers have dealt with depression in the workplace, and close to half have had employees with substance abuse problems and anxiety disorder. Other mental health issues mentioned frequently were bipolar disorder, chronic stress, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
By one estimate, depression alone costs 400 million lost work days per year.
Another study estimates that depression costs businesses $52 billion annually in absenteeism and reduced productivity.
When asked—
What's your biggest challenge in managing mental health issues in the workplace?
Employers gave a wide range of responses, underscoring the complexity of the issue. Here are some sample comments from survey participants:
"Every situation is different, but pinpointing
potential causes for certain behaviors
and determining
how to handle
approaching and managing difficult situations with the individual employees is the most challenging."
Lack of resources
available or
access to appropriate resources
. Boundaries of what can/cannot be done in the workplace to assist."
"Getting the employee to open up about the reason he/she is late, performing poorly, cannot be located, etc.
There is still a stigma
and they fear they will be treated differently than if it was a physical only illness."
Managing workloads
and getting information from the employee's medical provider as to their ability to handle the job responsibilities and what, if any, accommodations are being requested."
What can be said legally to the employee
when speaking about accommodation and managing inappropriate behaviors."
Applicable to employers with 50 or more employees, requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own or a covered family member’s “serious health condition,” including a physical or mental condition. The FMLA also provides, with a few exceptions, that employees returning from leave are entitled to be reinstated to the same or equivalent job.
The ADA envisions an interactive process involving the employer and employee to achieve a reasonable accommodation. Although accommodations must be tailored to the individual, the following are some accommodations that may be helpful for an employee with a mental illness, particularly if the disorder or medication interferes with the ability to concentrate, sleep, or deal with stress:
Flexible scheduling or telecommuting
Modified break schedule
Private or quiet space in which to work
Allowing the employee to play music using an ear bud
Increased lighting
Dividing large assignments into smaller increments
Auditory or written cues, as appropriate
Schedulers, organizers, or email applications that work as memory aids
Training in stress management techniques

Use of a support animal
Leave for counseling or other treatment
Additional time for training

Perhaps the most critical role for HR is leading the way in creating a culture where mental health is part of the organization’s overall commitment to wellness.

Mental health can be one part of a strategic initiative to nurture your workforce so that corporate goals and objectives can be met.
Here are some steps to consider as you strive to develop a workplace culture committed to the mental health of its workforce and where employees dealing with mental health issues are comfortable seeking the accommodations they need to perform their jobs:
Assess the measures and programs already in place and how effective they are
Look at benefits claims to see how benefits dollars are being spent. Develop long and short-term goals for your workplace.
Make the business case
Let your executive team know the direct and indirect costs your organization incurs from mental illness. Give them a sense of the complete economic impact of mental illness, and what can be done to cut those costs.
Have an employee assistance program (EAP) in place so employees have access to help when it’s needed
Communicate the availability of EAP services, letting employees know how and when to use them.
Offer confidential mental health screenings so that disorders can be identified and treated early
This is key for cutting costs associated with employees foregoing treatment for mental illness. Include mental health in your wellness program, helping employees with work-life balance and other issues that may interfere with work.
Train managers and front-line supervisors in mental health disorders and how to react to an employee with performance problems that may indicate the need for referral and evaluation
Among other things, managers and supervisors should understand:
mental illnesses are common, treatable illnesses
; businesses benefit from mental health friendly policies and practices; employees with mental illnesses are protected by the ADA and FMLA; it is a myth that people with mental illnesses are unreliable workers and prone to violence.
Communicate the organization’s commitment to equal opportunity, health and wellness programs, thus promoting a nondiscriminatory and accepting workplace
BLR's HR & Mental Health site is HR's complete online information resource for managing employee mental health challenges. It includes a practical guide for employers, checklists, forms, training materials and more. Learn more at
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