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Two reasons employees’ mental health really is your business

Costs and Americans with Disabilities Act


Courtesy Infographic JJ Keller


While employers may, in an effort to respect employees’ privacy, attempt to stay out of employees’ mental health concerns, these issues have a way of making their way into the workplace. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 43.8 million, or 18.5 percent, of adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in any given year.


There are a couple of significant reasons why employers need to be aware of this.


1) The costs

Purely from a cost perspective, employers can’t afford to ignore mental health issues in the workplace. Both the World Health Organization and the National Business Group on Health indicate that mental and behavioral health conditions generate as much as $100 billion in direct costs for employers. Unfortunately, indirect costs, such as lost productivity and a rise in disability claims, can make that number even higher.


Many employees struggling with mental health issues haven’t been diagnosed and/or do not receive mental health services to help them cope. While employers shouldn’t step into the

role of medical professional to diagnose or treat employees, they can provide education to the entire employee population on mental health issues and the importance of tending to them.


Such education can also encourage employees to look out for one another and to reach out when someone appears to be struggling. An employer’s efforts to destigmatize mental illness and to help employees recognize its prevalence can help employees feel more comfortable acknowledging that they’re struggling in some way.


This is particularly important, since psychological studies have shown that employees who hide disabilities or other parts of their identities struggle to build strong social relationships and have less mental energy for their jobs (their cognitive resources are devoted to keeping their identities secret). Employee assistance programs can also help with mental health, but employees typically need to be comfortable admitting that they need assistance before they can benefit from such programs.


2) The Americans with Disabilities Act

While the cost to employers should be a convincing motivator to address mental illness in the workplace, employers may also have a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to refrain from discriminating against — and to make reasonable accommodations for — individuals with mental illness.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released guidance on mental health conditions in the workplace, aimed at helping employees understand their legal rights. The agency resolved almost 5,000 charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions in fiscal year 2016, obtaining approximately $20 million from employers. What’s more, the agency indicated that discrimination based on mental health conditions are rising.


When are employees covered?

Individuals with disabilities will find protection under the ADA, and a mental illness is considered a “disability” if it “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This definition is to be considered broadly, so many – if not most – individuals with mental illness will find protection under the law.



An employee with a disability cannot be discriminated against on the basis of that disability; and if the disability affects job performance, he or she has a right to an accommodation that would help him or her do the job.


Accommodations that may be effective for individuals suffering from mental illness may include changes to break and work schedules, permission to work from home, a quiet space in which to work, or providing written as well as verbal work instructions.


Under the ADA, if an employer is aware that an employee’s mental illness could be contributing to a performance problem, it must consider whether a reasonable accommodation would help him or her do the job in question. Employers that choose not to consider accommodations in such situations put themselves at risk to be part of the EEOC’s rising charge statistics.


About the Author
Katie Loehrke is a certified Professional in Human Resources and an editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized compliance resource firm. The company offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by HR and corporate professionals. Loehrke specializes in employment law topics such as discrimination, privacy and social media, and affirmative action. She is the editor of J. J. Keller’s Employment Law Today newsletter and its Essentials of Employment Law manual. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/hr.


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