A man suffering from diagnosed depression calls into his workplace and requests a day off. His supervisor is torn: she’d like to accommodate him but the team project is on a tight deadline. Is he legally entitled to the time off?
The answer to this question may surprise you, especially if you’re not familiar with the laws and regulations that govern working conditions for those with mental health conditions. Luckily, the law provides specific guidance for employees and employers alike.
Key laws and regulations about mental health and the workplace
The law that we’re referring to is The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990 and has continued to profoundly shape day-to-day work culture. Within this act are two primary regulations, which have numerous components to help employees and employers create a functional and welcoming working environment.
The first regulation has to do with anti-discrimination. The second regulation focuses on what is referred to as reasonable accommodations.
For HR professionals, it’s vital that you become familiar with the various applications of the anti-discrimination regulation. This regulation comes into effect even before you officially hire an employee. During the application and interview process, potential employers are not allowed to discriminate against suitable candidates based on their mental health disability or illness.
Imagine the following scenario: you interview a stellar candidate who meets all the criteria for the position but has autism, which makes it difficult for them to engage in small talk. A team director is worried that the candidate’s autism will hamper team communications, especially the more informal sessions that take place in company hallways or across break room tables.
This is where the second primary regulation, reasonable accommodations, comes into play. As long as the candidate’s mental health condition does not place an undue hardship on the organization, you are required to accommodate that employee’s needs. In the case of the potential employee with autism, they may require a slightly modified form of group communication.
Perhaps they would respond better to an online chat session with their co-workers that does not involve eye contact, for example, or request a special schedule with certain breaks or time off that enables them to integrate more successfully into the social atmosphere of their coworkers.
Such accommodations do not require an outsize expenditure on the part of the employer, and should be minimal enough that they do not significantly change the ongoing company culture.
It’s worth noting that the reasonable accommodation regulation can also take the form of physical changes to the workplace. While no employer is expected to redesign their workplace at great cost or in a way that fundamentally changes or threatens the functionality of the business, small, relatively inexpensive changes (such as adding a cubicle with soundproofing, for example) are entirely within the scope of the law.
HR professionals should also be aware that the anti-discrimination regulation applies to promotion, payment issues, firing, and other aspects of employment. Essentially, when it comes to making corporate decisions related to performance, HR professionals should treat employees with mental health disabilities or illnesses with the same consideration and courtesy as their neurotypical peers.
Developing a mental health policy for your workplace
Now that we’ve reviewed the law and its primary regulations, let’s return to our hypothetical example of the man with diagnosed depression asking for a day off during an intensive work week. Is he legally entitled to request this time off?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Commission, it depends on how effectively the man has communicated with his supervisor in the past about his condition. While no employer is allowed to discriminate against an employee with a mental health condition such as depression or PTSD, the employee should first notify the employer in writing that they need special accommodations.
Under the law employees are not required to divulge their mental health condition except for four specific situations. The first is if they are asking for a reasonable accommodation, and the second is if they are answering a question that all job candidates are asked about their mental health after they’ve received a job offer but before they officially begin working.
The third has to do with company-wide surveys on affirmative action: if a company is attempting to put together a diversity report on how many employees working for them have a disability, for example, an employee may choose to give out that information. The fourth situation compels an employee to disclose that they have a mental health condition if that condition makes it impossible for them to do their job or would cause a safety risk.
Organizations should develop a mental health policy that does more than simply satisfy the bare minimums of the law. In this hypothetical example, the supervisor will be much better prepared to grant the man the time off he needs to deal with his condition if she has first been notified of this possibility. Likewise, the man will be much likelier to notify her of his needs if he feels comfortable that the company culture will support his request.
How can HR professionals encourage their employees to be honest about their needs? Luckily, it’s a relatively simple matter of eradicating mental health stigma. Talking openly about mental health increases awareness. This open communication can take many forms, from regular company-wide newsletters about mental health to optional employee seminars. It’s also vital to improve onsite access to mental health resources, such as in-person counseling and self-assessment tests.
By regularly raising awareness of mental health issues and creating safe forums for discussion, HR professionals craft a beneficial mental health policy that not only meets the requirements of the law but also creates a welcoming and highly adaptive company culture. These best practices benefit everyone involved.
For employers, understanding the needs of their employees helps them effectively manage teams and meet organizational productivity goals. For employees, knowing that their mental health is important to their company makes it much easier for them to fully engage with their work.
Although these best practices can be undertaken as a way to better meet the needs of the law, they will also create a much healthier workplace environment overall. Neurotypical employees also appreciate a workplace that values their mental wellness.
In terms of increasing access to mental health resources, organizations benefit from partnering with an experienced mental health provider. With its comprehensive network of physicians and scientific advisors, Spring Health offers a variety of solutions for hundreds of mental health conditions. We can advise you on what materials and tools to offer your employees, and rapidly connect your team members with the best possible care tailored to meet their specific needs.
To find out how Spring Health can help you not only comply with the law but create a vibrant and healthy workplace, contact us for more information.