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Accommodating Mental Health at Work


Does your office have a mental health policy? It should. More than 43 million Americans (18% of the U.S. population) experience some type of mental illness each year, and this percentage continues to increase. More days have been lost or disrupted by mental illness than by many chronic conditions, including arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. Choosing to not accommodate your employees’ mental health at work will hurt your bottom line.


What Mental Illness Looks Like in the Workplace:

Mental health is a spectrum. An employee could experience mental health challenges that don’t impact their job because they learned to manage the challenges. Others could be testing a new medication to suppress their mental illness, that could lead to distracting side effects like falling asleep at your desk. Unfortunately, when we hear the words mental health and workplace together, we conjure up images of the rare cases of someone exacting revenge and other unhealthy disruptive behaviors.

A growing number of employers and HR professionals are recognizing that early detection and treatment of mental illness can prevent a crisis and reduce employers’ health care costs down the road. They are developing programs and plans to provide more support for their employees with psychiatric disorders – similar to the help they provide those with physical injuries or ailments.


Start the Conversation About Mental Health at Work:

Starting a conversation about mental health does not have to be difficult. Most employees with mental illnesses will not disclose this information to their employer. They fear losing their job or being seen as disadvantaged. SHRM has offered tips on how to address mental illness in the workplace and how to break the stigma so everyone in your organization can be productive and feel comfortable:

Finding The Right Words To Say

  • What not to say:
    • “How’s your health?”
    • “You seem depressed.”
    • “Snap out of it.”
    • “Think positive.”
    • “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
  • Say this instead:
    • “How can we help you do your job?”
    • “You’re not your usual self.”
    • “Do you want to talk about it?”
    • “It’s always OK to ask for help.”
    • “It’s hard for me to understand exactly what you’re going through, but I can see it’s distressing for you.”

How to Break the Mental Health Stigma in Your Workplace

To support employees with mental illnesses, the National Mental Health Association and National Council for Behavioral Health recommend the following:

  • Educate employees about the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders.
  • Encourage employees to talk about stress, workload, family commitments and other issues.
  • Communicate mental illnesses are real, common and treatable.
  • Discourage stigmatizing language, including hurtful labels such as “crazy,” “loony” or “nuts.”
  • Invest in mental health benefits.
  • Help employees transition back to work after they take leave.
  • Consult with your employee assistance program.

How to Make Accommodations for Employees with Mental Health Challenges

Unless it creates an undue hardship on a business to do so, the ADA requires most employers to offer accommodations to an employee with a mental illness if the illness substantially limits a major life activity. Accommodations may include reduced work hours as the employee transitions back to work, permission to work from home or changed duties.

Employers may discipline and even terminate an employee with a mental illness without going through the ADA’s interactive accommodation process if that employee engages in misconduct or presents a threat. But a common mistake that HR and managers make is confusing a direct threat with something that is just scary.

All and all, when dealing with an employee with mental illness, treat them with respect. Mental illness, like any other illness, can be treated and managed.

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