Making Employees’ Mental Health Disclosures Matter

The ubiquity of mental health issues during the pandemic has been well documented.

I always start a post about mental health with statistics. I think it’s important to see how pervasive mental health issues are—they affect people regardless of their economic status, politics, sex, race, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They do not discriminate in any sense of the word.

According to Mental Health America data, 47 million Americans or 19% of the U.S. adult population are experiencing a mental illness.

Right now. As of 2021.

Holy…and these are just the adults.

Indeed, almost a year ago, I wrote about the allostatic overload that so many seem to be suffering from—now, we have new COVID-19 variants, continued disrupted travel plans and school closures, and return to work has become return-to-who-knows-what. The stress and overwhelm continues, seemingly unabated.

Employers seeking to retain talent and avoid #TheGreatResignation must consider how they and their supervisors respond to employees that disclose mental health issues, disorders, or conditions.

I’ve read so many stories about folks too scared to tell their managers or being fired when they disclose a mental health issue. That shouldn’t be the case. So how should a supervisor react when told by an employee that they’ve developed a mental health disorder?

Stop The Stigma: How To Tell Your Boss About Your Mental Health Condition?

In this Forbes article, Natasha Bowman talks about her own disclosure of a mental health disorder and provides encouragement and a “practical guide” to the discussion.

When considering disclosing her own mental health diagnosis, she writes something I found truly important:

Disclosure can be risky, especially with a subject that has been so stigmatized and poorly understood. Nobody wants to feel “defective,” nor do we want to give others a reason to doubt or marginalize us. But when we stay silent about our struggles, we create the impression for ourselves and others that everyone is doing fine when they’re not. 

Back in 2016, I told you here about the stigmatization of mental illnesses. I told you that one study indicated that nearly 85% of people say they’re uncomfortable discussing mental illness at work.

“Stigma continues to linger in the air,” said Bowman.

Which leads me to my point, and I don’t mean to bury the lede here: supervisors, managers, your direct reports and dotted line reports and rank and file employees are suffering with just diagnosed, developing, or, in many cases, worsening mental health issues.

So, What’s Next? What Should You Do as “The Boss” Or Supervisor?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (and other state and local laws) requires employers to engage in an interactive process with an employee to determine if there are reasonable accommodations that can help an employee with a mental health impairment perform the essential functions of the person’s job as long as such accommodation does impose an “undue burden” on the employer.

An unpaid leave of absence  may be needed under the Family Medical Leave Act, depending on the size of the organization and if the employee is “eligible” within the meaning of the FMLA.

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.

As Bowman notes, as an employee, explain how a mental health condition is affecting your life. Your boss needs to understand what limitations result from the condition so (s)he/they know how to accommodate you.

Like so many things in life, the key to this interactive process is fluid and ongoing communication.

Engaging in the interactive process enables the supervisor or HR department to determine whether or not an employee requires an accommodation. During this process, an employer may request and obtain information about how the disability affects the employee’s ability to do the job. Employers have an ongoing duty to engage with employees to determine reasonable accommodations that may be available. It is not a “one and done” deal.

What Kind of Accommodations Could Be Available For Mental Health Conditions?

Accommodations range from leave (paid or unpaid) to a temporary modification of work schedules to the elimination or substitution of “marginal” functions (i.e., incidental job duties and not essential functions of a particular job. It may just be an hour once a week for therapy. Or breaks during the day for unplugged deep breaths.

Supervisors and HR, if you are stuck, the website JAN provides an extensive list of accommodations for employees who suffer with mental health issues including flexible scheduling, additional time to learn new tasks, time off for therapy, frequent breaks, checklists.

As you can see, effective accommodations depend on an employee’s job duties, the workplace itself, and the type of job and position.

There’s More…Consider Your Organizational Culture

As Bowman also notes, and as I discussed last year here, as we careened toward the end of year 1 of this pandemic, employers must consider their culture and if that culture is one that supports mental health or contributes to the stigma.

Supervisors play a key role here. 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. Check in with your employees, wherever they are.

Lead by example. Organizational leaders set the tone, and people tend to follow the leader. If you, as a manager or supervisor, prioritize mental health, your employees are more likely to do so as well.

Consider talking to the C-suite about increased mental health benefits and, if possible, outreach, coaching, and fostering support through peer-to-peer connections or Employee Assistance Programs. Some companies have increased employees access to mental health resources, such as free counseling sessions, financial counseling and mobile apps that teach stress-management techniques.

Employers, as we round the corner into year 3 (!) of this pandemic, consider the likelihood that at least several of the employees on the team or in the department you manage are suffering. They shouldn’t need to suffer in silence.

As Bowman aptly stated, accepting and accommodating an employee’s mental health condition “isn’t just the right thing to do for a fellow human being,” and isn’t just the right thing to do because it’s legally required, “it’s also the wisest business decision.”

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.