Aug 30, 2021 | Ruth Hartgen, PHR, Director of HR at HRCI
Accommodating Mental Illness in the Workplace
Mental illnesses are often invisible to the casual observer. We know all too well that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Individuals with mental illness frequently face stigmas from those who don’t make the effort to understand or empathize with them. But that’s slowly changing. More employees are acknowledging their mental health, and how it impacts their productivity.
Mental health is being discussed more as it’s increasingly destigmatized, but that’s not the only reason for the growing conversation. COVID and its ensuing complications have taken a toll on our collective mental wellness. Since the pandemic began, more employees have admitted to experiencing mental health issues than ever before. One survey of over 1,400 workers found 39% of employees experienced mental health issues in 2019; that number climbed to 46% in 2020. Quite simply, your HR team is more likely than ever before to be tasked with accommodating mental illness in the workplace.
Helping employees feel comfortable enough to request accommodations for mental illness requires an attentive, empathetic workplace culture. Here’s how to support better mental health at your organization.
Train Managers to Recognize Performance Indicators
Mental illness can manifest in many ways, often impacting performance. HR teams and managers should proactively learn about symptoms and how to accommodate them. Performance-based indicators include tardiness, reluctance to engage in a specific task or other deficiencies. Previously solid performers may suddenly struggle.
“Leaders or managers need to be on the lookout for language that isn't as clear around, ‘I need help’,” says Kelly Marinelli, SPHR, Associate Director of People and Culture at GenapSys. “That might be the first indicator that we need to engage in a process of figuring this out.”
Train managers on the process of opening a dialogue. Employees don’t have to explicitly ask for accommodation to begin the conversation about their needs. “It’s always an interactive process,” says Stacey Hipsman, SPHR, VP of HR and Administration at Black Dragon Capital. The more attuned managers are to indicators of mental illness, the easier it can be for the employee to make their needs known.
Of course, it’s possible to be too attentive. Privacy can be a concern. For that matter, managers could simply be mistaken, leaping to an incorrect conclusion about an employee’s mental state. This is why managers should be careful not to overstep or make assumptions about their employees’ mental health. Provide scenario-based training about when or when not to ask questions. This type of training can help managers become more empathetic towards what employees are experiencing.
It should go without saying that, if an employee asks for an accommodation, the manager can’t immediately turn around and penalize them for performance issues stemming from their mental illness. Beyond creating a toxic environment where employees are encouraged to hide their problems as opposed to seeking help, it could be classified as retaliation. With better education, these types of risks can be minimized.
Managers and colleagues who have never experienced mental illness might need additional training to understand what their coworker is enduring. Even then, they might still be dismissive of it. Older employees or employees from cultures that value mental toughness, Hipsman says, may be less empathetic to mental illness. Better education and awareness can help change this, but it needs to be clear that mental health is a priority.
One effective measure is to encourage leaders who have experienced mental illness to talk about it openly. Mental illnesses are more common than most people realize, and seeing that they aren’t alone can empower employees to ask for help. Beyond this, it’s a clear signal that getting help won’t stunt their professional advancement.
It’s also important to educate the workforce on types of mental illness. Burnout, depression and anxiety are common, especially in high-stress circumstances or environments. Hipsman suggests encouraging all employees to use mental health resources like employee assistance programs (EAPs). Be sure to include virtual counseling or therapy as part of your wellness program. Highlight these programs during mental health month.
The more your culture embraces talking freely about mental health, the more empowered employees will feel to come forward and request accommodations. “It's really important that people be willing to ask for help before performance issues start to arise,” Marinelli says. “Create an environment of psychological safety and inclusion.”
Foster Employee Trust in HR
Since the pandemic, people have become more open to discussing mental illness, but it’s still too often stigmatized. Building a culture of openness towards mental health and accommodating mental illness is an important step. Of course, for this to occur employees need to trust HR enough to feel comfortable starting a dialogue in the first place.
Trust is essential to accommodating mental illness in the workplace. If employees can’t trust their supervisor or their HR team enough to reveal something as vulnerable as their mental health status, they will not feel safe asking for accommodations. HR must be seen as a safe space. Employees should feel comfortable addressing you, knowing that their situation will be kept confidential.
You need to make sure employees know that their health is a priority for your department. To do this, you should build relationships with employees across the organization. First step: Reach out. “You have to go to them, and it doesn’t make a difference if you’re virtual,” Hipsman says. She suggests conducting regular wellness checks to talk to individual employees. In a remote or hybrid work model, connect via video call to make it feel more personal.
While trust is the ultimate goal, some employees are simply more comfortable connecting anonymously. Provide channels and mechanisms for them to report what they’re struggling with, Marinelli suggests. This allows you to address issues for the entire company without singling out any specific individuals.
Collaborate on Accommodations
Accommodating mental illness in the workplace is an interactive process. It always starts with and centers on the employee requiring accommodation. Work with the employee, their manager and, if necessary, their doctor/healthcare provider. “People think HR can’t get any information from the physician or doctor, but that’s actually not true,” Hipsman says. Generally, with written permission from the employee, you can discuss the best ways to accommodate the employee directly with their physician. This can vary by state. If possible, consult a lawyer before proceeding. (If you have access to an employment lawyer or a disability consultant, it can be helpful to get their input.)
When identifying accommodations, Hipsman says you should be very clear on what the essential functions of the job are. From there you can more easily determine how to accommodate a specific employee’s needs. Common accommodations for mental illness can include more scheduling flexibility, moving to a quieter workplace in the office or giving the employee an option to work permanently from home. Some simpler accommodations might include providing noise-canceling headphones or modifying lighting to minimize distractions and support better focus. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides additional ideas for accommodating mental illness in the workplace.
Of course, you will need to consider whether the employee can be accommodated without creating an undue business impact. An employee might ask to start work at 10:00 AM instead of 8:00 AM and work later in the day than their peers, for example. You may hesitate to grant this request, not wanting to create a precedent for employees to seek later start times. Marinelli says that, assuming the employee can still do their job at the later start time, this isn’t an undue business impact and the accommodation should be made.
But what if there’s an issue with maintaining coverage during the earlier time? This is where consulting with the employee’s physician can be helpful, as you attempt to figure out an approach that will suit both parties. The company isn’t obligated to provide one accommodation if another could work, Marinelli says.
Sometimes an employee simply can’t meet the essential job functions. If that’s the case, Hipsman says it's up to HR to identify alternate work assignments. This is easier in larger organizations, where there are more options for mobility.
Accommodations likely won’t be a one-and-done scenario. A request for accommodation should open an ongoing dialogue between the employee, HR and their manager. Implement continuous communication measures to ensure that employees feel empowered to perform at their best.
Document Everything, But Protect Privacy
For compliance reasons — and to protect your company from discrimination claims — it’s vital to document every stage of an employee’s request for accommodation. Record each of the accommodations proposed. If they aren’t implemented, record the reasons why. This documentation demonstrates your efforts to accommodate mental illness in the workplace.
At the same time, take care to assure the employee that their case will be kept private. Marinelli states that, as a general rule with accommodating mental illness in the workplace, it’s good to consult an employment lawyer.
As noted, mental illness accommodations will likely continue to become more common as employees feel more empowered to address mental health in the workplace. Your challenge will be to establish a process for requesting and identifying the best options that remains consistent, even as you deal with unique individuals with unique issues that will require unique accommodations. No matter how you adapt and adjust, remember the goal remains the same: To enable all employees to be healthy and productive.