When a football player throws out his back, he may require a few days or weeks of recovery. But if he sustains an injury to his spinal cord and loses the ability to move his legs, that’s a disability. This is similar to what happens when a person is diagnosed with a mental health disability: unlike a mental health illness that makes life more difficult but does not seriously impair a person’s day-to-day functioning, a mental health disability can dramatically transform a person’s life.

For an employer, the difference between an employee’s mental health concern and a mental health disability is considerable, not only in terms of how it may affect workplace accommodations, but also how health care providers choose to treat it. If you don’t know the difference, now is the time to seek clarity on what each term means and how it can specifically affect your organization. 

What is a mental health disability?

Because in-depth studies in this field are relatively new, the terms used to talk about mental health can sometimes be confusing. Physicians have a long history of choosing a descriptive term for a particular illness or condition to only modify or change it a few decades later once they understand more about the condition. However, because these changes are constantly taking place, it’s not unusual for non-medical personnel, especially employers, to have a hard time understanding what a medical professional means by a certain term.

For example: a mental illness is not the same as a mental health concern. Being diagnosed with severe bipolar depression is not the same as experiencing a period of sadness. Likewise, a mental health disability is not the exact same thing as a mental illness, although it is possible for someone to have a mental illness that develops into a mental health disability. 

In legal terms, a mental health disability is defined by the Disability Evaluation Under Social Security Handbook as symptoms or syndromes that severely limit your ability to complete basic tasks in both a work and/or social setting. 

There are two parts to meeting this definition. First, there are eleven categories of syndromes that potentially qualify you to receive mental health disability benefits. These include eating disorders, an intellectual disorder, schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, autism spectrum disorder, depressive, bipolar, and related disorders, personality and impulse-control disorder, neurocognitive disorders, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, somatic symptom and related disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders. 

The second part of the definition evaluates how well you perform in certain work and social settings as a result of your diagnosed syndrome. In other words, it may be possible to be diagnosed with one of the above disorders but still not qualify as having a mental health disability.

At work, for example, if you are unable to understand information, successfully interact with others, or adapt or manage yourself, you may qualify as being disabled. In the social sphere, if your diagnosis prevents you from being able to perform routine tasks such as taking care of yourself, including feeding yourself and performing personal hygiene, you may also qualify as disabled.  

According to the Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, from 2012 to 2018 roughly one in three workers who have received disability benefits has a mental health disability. This translates to a figure of over 2.5 million workers per year in the United States alone! 

Because mental health disabilities are prevalent in the workforce, it’s vital for you to understand both what a mental health disability is, and how best to accomodate the needs of your employees who have one.

What mental health disability protections exist?

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified job candidates who have a diagnosed mental illness or disability. Employers also aren’t allowed to overlook employees with a disability for promotions, fire them without cause, or otherwise pay them differently than an identical employee without a disability.

The ADA also explicitly requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” workers with disabilities unless this creates an “undue hardship” on the business. Undue hardship can be defined as changes that are either too expensive or that would change the fundamental nature of the business. 

Generally speaking, the ADA’s reasonable accommodations include adjusted job tasks, paid or unpaid leave for hospitalizations or periods of illness related to the mental health disability, flexible hours, and a supportive work environment that offers regular feedback on the employee’s performance.

Much in the way the Social Security Administration defines a mental health disability, the ADA also is clear that while some mental or physical conditions can be classified as impairments, not all impairments are necessarily disabilities. To qualify as a disability, the mental illness must substantially limit one or more major life activities of the employee.

Employees or job-seekers with a mental health disability who feel they are being unfairly discriminated against may file what is known as an administrative charge under Title I of the ADA with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which offers detailed guidance on the roles of both employee and employer.

How to address and accommodate mental health disabilities in the workplace

So what does all of this potentially confusing terminology mean in a real-world context? The good news is that creating a welcoming and accommodating workplace doesn’t have to be difficult or particularly expensive. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, many relatively inexpensive upgrades can be made to the workplace to accommodate those with a mental health disability. One of the simplest accomodations is allowing individuals to telecommute or work from an environment that is already customized to serve their specific needs. 

For those who work in a shared office environment, providing private offices, reduced ambient noise, and more natural lighting can be extremely beneficial not just to the employee with the mental health disability but all employees. Essentially, investing in a cleaner, quieter, and better-lit facility where it is easy for employees to concentrate not only helps employers meet their legal requirements, but can result in tax deductions and a more productive workforce overall.

Of course, excellent HR professionals know that simply meeting legal expectations is only part of the solution. To nurture and sustain an energized workforce, it’s important to have plans in place that anticipate and address employees’ mental health care needs. 

The crucial part of this plan involves destigmatizing mental health issues. Whether an employee has recently started experiencing symptoms or has a diagnosed condition dating back decades, employers must make it clear that their workplace is here to help. 

Creating a culture of disability inclusiveness isn’t just about assembling a top-tier health care plan (although that certainly is a major part of it!). It’s about making people feel that they are not alone, and that they are doing the right thing when they seek care for their symptoms.

Another way to conceptualize of destigmatization is to visualize a physical ailment, such as a cut on a finger. There is currently no stigma involved in disinfecting the cut and placing bandages upon it until it is healed. There should also be no stigma for an employee who is experiencing symptoms of depression and wishes to seek treatment. 

If the finger is left untreated, it could become infected and lead to much more severe, life-altering treatments in the future. Likewise, by having a comprehensive mental health care plan, employers can help employees get the care they need when they need it, and potentially prevent the development of a mental health disability.

Creating an inclusive workplace culture

While destigmatizing mental health issues in the workplace is an enormous part of creating an inclusive workplace culture, there are a few other steps employers should also take.

Harvard Business Review recommends a multi-step process which asks employers to examine how they hire, engage, and sustain communication within their organization. Many employers may have an unconscious bias towards hiring those with mental health disabilities. 

Obviously, for this to change within the company, it must first be acknowledged. If an otherwise qualified candidate is being turned away because they have autism, for example, your company should develop a hiring process that recognizes this has been an inadvertent source of discrimination in the past and corrects for it.

Employers could also have some form of organization-wide awareness seminars or training that helps neurotypical employees understand the challenges that employees with mental health illnesses or disabilities face. These disability inclusion seminars help make it easier for all employees to find solutions to challenges they may be facing in the workplace.

Finally, companies can actively reach out to mental health disability groups in their community to create a potential source of new hires and to encourage the formation of mentorships between employees with the same condition. By fostering a supportive, welcoming environment, companies not only create an inclusive workplace culture, but also create productive long term networks.

Whether you’re addressing a mental health disability, a mental health concern, or just want to learn more about anticipating the spectrum of mental health issues, Spring Health’s extensive network of physicians, scientific researchers, and treatment options enables us to help companies find the custom treatment plans they need for every one of their employees. Contact us to learn more about what Spring Health can offer you.

Spring Health

November 16, 2020