Accommodating Mental Health Impairments in the Workplace

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 25% of adults experience a mental health impairment each year.1 Mental health impairments are invisible disabilities in that we cannot necessarily see the signs of the disability. Some employers may see this as a challenge because the accommodation the employee needs is not always obvious. In addition, there is still a stigma regarding mental illness, so there is the risk that an employee who asks for an accommodation for a mental health impairment may not be taken seriously. Let’s look at some ways to improve your process for handling mental health impairment accommodation requests.

What is a Mental Health Impairment?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), someone may be disabled “if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing or learning).” This definition is broad and can include a lot of different mental and physical disabilities.

Mental health impairments include anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and many other psychological disorders. Not all people with a mental health impairment meet the definition of disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so handle each request on a case-by-case basis. Do not assume an employee with a mental health impairment is or is not disabled before entering into the interactive process. The employee’s mental health impairment must meet the definition outlined above.

What to Do When an Employee Makes an Accommodation Request

The accommodation process for a mental health impairment is the same as for a physical disability. Employers must make reasonable accommodations unless that accommodation would impose an undue hardship. If you do not already have forms that an employee can use to request an accommodation, work with an HR professional or attorney to create them. The forms include space for the specific request as well as a certification that the employee’s healthcare provider will fill out. The forms serve as the foundation for the interactive process and the conversations you will have with the employee about accommodating their disability.

When it comes to accommodations for mental health impairments, many are easy to implement and are low cost or no cost. Depending on the employee’s diagnosis, these may include flexible start times, schedule changes, work-from-home options, noise reduction efforts (e.g. noise-cancelling headphones, allowing time to call a healthcare professional for support, moving the employee to a quieter area), providing written instructions, allowing a support animal and a variety of other things. Remember that what might work for one employee who experiences panic attacks may not work for another, so be open to the interactive process resulting in different accommodations each time.

Most importantly, be compassionate. I have seen managers fall into the trap of thinking that an employee is making up their mental health impairment or thinking that the employee is using their diagnosis as an excuse to perform poorly. There is sometimes the assumption that a person with a mental health impairment can simply snap out of it. This is not the reality for someone living with something like PTSD. So, enter the interactive process with an open mind and the goal of supporting your employee so that they can become a fully contributing member of your staff. Just because someone has a disability, it does not meant that they cannot be an excellent employee.

Document all your conversations with the employee throughout the interactive process. Follow up with the employee after the accommodation is put in place to ensure that the employee’s needs are being met, and make adjustments as necessary.

Getting Help from an Expert

The JAN website offers numerous suggestions for accommodating all manner of disabilities in the workplace. In conjunction with the documentation provided by an employee’s healthcare professional, I have used the information on JAN’s website to develop workplace accommodations. The site can be especially helpful for mental health impairments where the accommodation is not always obvious. JAN also has a number listed on their site that employers can call with accommodation questions.

Of course, sometimes an accommodation request is complicated, and it is time to call in expert help. If an employee repeatedly shoots down accommodations or is not cooperative, contact an attorney or ADA compliance expert to help.

1 Loy, Beth and Melanie Whetzel. Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Mental Health Impairments. Morgantown, WV: Job Accommodation Network, 2014. Print.

About the Author

Stephanie Hammerwold, PHR, is the owner of Hammerwold & Pershing Consulting and specializes in small business HR support. Stephanie is a regular contributor at Blogging4Jobs and The HR Gazette, and she gives presentations on a variety of job search and workplace topics. She specializes in training, employee relations, women’s issues and writing employment policy. Connect with Stephanie on LinkedInTwitter or Facebook.'

Author: Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, PHR, is the co-owner of Hammerworld & Pershing and specializes in small business HR support. Stephanie writes as the HR Hammer and is a regular contributor at Blogging4Jobs, The HR Gazette and TalentCulture, and she gives presentations on a variety of job search and workplace topics. She specializes in training, employee relations, women’s issues and writing employment policy. Connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

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