How to Help Employees with Mental Health Issues

The combination of lockdowns, unemployment and anxiety over the threat of your vulnerable loved ones or you contracting the Coronavirus with unknown consequences has fueled a significant jump in mental health problems. As an employer, do you know how to deal with these issues when they arise among your workforce?

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that almost 41% of all adults in the United States are struggling with their mental health or substance use. This is double what had been historically reported pre-pandemic. Another analysis has reported that 25% of adolescents said they had contemplated suicide.

Attorney Amy Epstein Gluck says she and her colleagues at the FisherBroyles law firm have seen this particular aspect of their disabilities law practice for employers burgeon in recent months.

She points out that mental health experts have come up with a new term for the aggravating factor: allostatic overload. This term describes what happens to a brain that has to process stress signals nonstop, which ends up consuming mental resources faster than a person can replenish them.

“The bottom line is that, of course, rates of anxiety and depression (to name just two mental health issues) have increased,” Epstein Gluck observes. “We have no idea when this pandemic will end, and uncertainty tends to foster anxiety. Allostatic overload is likely exacerbating these conditions as well as creating them for folks in whom they did not exist.”

She passes on some timely advice for employers who may find themselves dealing with employees who find themselves in this situation:

Talk with your teams about mental health. “Authentic communication destigmatizes the whole idea of mental health as a ‘problem,’ reframes it as a workplace challenge, and presents an opportunity for creative and even innovative ways for people to work together,” she advises. “Communicate. And then communicate a little more. Check in with the people you work with, especially now that you can’t grab lunch or coffee together, or just stop by another person’s office or cubicle.”

Lead by example. Organizational leaders set the tone, and people tend to follow the leader in both this and other situations. “If you, as a manager or supervisor, prioritize mental health, your employees are more likely to do so as well,” Epstein Gluck says.

Training, training, training. Managers and even the C-suite need to be trained to recognize requests for accommodations for mental health disorders and that providing them complies with federal law. “Most accommodations for mental health disorders are inexpensive, if not free,” she explains.

Make Talking Easier

A pre-pandemic study found that nearly 85% of people say they’re uncomfortable discussing mental illness at work, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).estimates that 8 in 10 workers with a mental health condition do not get treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with it.

“If people aren’t seeking treatment and are uncomfortable talking about mental illness at work, they sure aren’t seeking reasonable accommodations either,” Epstein Gluck stresses. “That can land an employer in hot water,” especially when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the strictures that arise from similar state and local laws.

In a nutshell, the ADA requires employers to engage in an interactive process with an employee to determine reasonable accommodations that help an employee with a physical or mental health impairment perform the essential functions of the person’s job.

This doesn’t mean that employers must provide whatever an employee requests—an accommodation should not impose an undue burden on the employer; otherwise it’s not a considered a “reasonable” accommodation, she reminds employers. “To comply with the ADA, an employer must engage in the interactive process to gain an understanding of how the disability affects the employee’s ability to do the job.”

Engaging in the interactive process enables an employer to determine whether or not an employee requires an accommodation. During this process, employers also can obtain from employees or their healthcare providers clearer understanding of how the disability affects an individual employee’s ability to do their job.

“As employers, we have an ongoing duty to engage with employees to determine reasonable accommodations that may be available to enable qualified employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs,” Epstein Gluck says.

Several common accommodations include elimination or substitution of “marginal” functions (such as incidental job duties and non-essential functions of a particular job; temporary modification of work schedules; or increasing social distancing by moving a person’s workspace). Other accommodations can include application of flexible scheduling, additional time to learn new tasks, time off for therapy and frequent breaks.

She suggests that employers also look for additional information about how to choose the appropriate accommodations. An extensive list of accommodations for employees who suffer with mental health issues is available at the Job Accommodation Network.

“The point is that effective accommodations depend on an employee’s job duties, the workplace itself and the type of job and position,” she says. An employer can and should request information about functional limitations caused by the disability to be able to comprehend the nature of the employee’s difficulties, how an accommodation could alleviate an employee’s limitations, and which accommodations may be appropriate.

Epstein Gluck also emphasizes that it is critical for employers to substantially document efforts to engage in the interactive process, conversations with employees during the process, and any determination not to provide an accommodation because of an undue burden. By accomplishing this, employers can go a long way toward mitigating their organization’s risk in the event that the employee decides to file a charge of discrimination or a lawsuit.

“As employers, we certainly cannot prevent allostatic overload, but we can certainly accommodate its increasing effect on employees’ mental health by engaging in the interactive process and working with employees in compliance with the ADA,” she says. 


Source: EHS Today