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Mental health and the workplace: What employers need to know

Mental health and how it affects the workplace is a multifaceted issue. Statistics tell us that 44 million adults in the U.S. — or 18.5 percent of the population — sought medical treatment for a mental health condition in the past year.

Among these adults, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 18 percent have an anxiety disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. In addition, almost 10 percent suffer from depression and 4 percent are diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

In terms of the working population, it’s estimated that 18 percent of the American workforce suffers from a mental health condition, making psychiatric disability one of the most common types of disability covered under the Americans with Disability Act, or ADA.

ADA and psychiatric disability

The ADA regulates how employers handle applicants and employees with mental health conditions. The law defines “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including mental health conditions. Courts interpret the definition of disability broadly; therefore, most applicants and employees with a mental health condition have workplace rights under the ADA. This means three main things. First, they have a right to privacy. Applicants and employees can choose whether to tell the employer about their disability. Second, they have the right to request a job accommodation. An employer must grant reasonable requests unless it is an undue hardship, and they need to engage in a legally outlined review process to determine whether to grant any requested accommodations. Finally, applicants and employees have the right to not be discriminated against based upon a disability or a perceived disability.

Employer responsibilities

As an employer, the realization that roughly one in five of your current employees is working with a psychiatric disability can be daunting. Developing a culture that is capable of supporting and responding to employees with mental health issues is critical. Employers who successfully manage employees with mental health disorders incorporate the following items to ensure compliance with the ADA and to create a supportive cultural environment:

Employee resources

Employee Assistance Programs and workplace support groups help create a positive environment for workers to stay healthy and get help when necessary. Helping employees identify and receive support for mental health issues early on will benefit both the employee and the organization as a whole.

Management/supervisory training

Managers and supervisors are generally your first line of defense. They have the ability to recognize employee issues, will likely field accommodation requests and set the tone of support and inclusiveness for those dealing with mental health disabilities. Supervisors should be regularly trained on the four major employment laws that govern the workplace: the ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and Title VII, which covers discrimination/harassment.

Safety concerns

Employers have a responsibility to create and maintain a safe working environment for all employees. It’s vital to act when there is a possible safety concern but make sure the concerns are grounded in clear evidence and not general fear. Don’t rely on myths or stereotypes related a particular condition.

Costs and benefits

A recent World Health Organization-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Employers who take action may experience benefits to productivity. For every $1 spent on treatment for the most common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. Effective accommodations help employees return to work more quickly after disability or medical leave, eliminate costs related to lost productivity, reduce insurance claims and help with recruiting and retaining qualified employees.

August 19, 2019

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