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FAQ: Human resources and mental health accommodations

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As people become more open about discussing their mental health, many -- especially younger ones, according to The Wall Street Journal -- are asking for workplace accommodations. For the past 30 years, mental health conditions have been covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning that employers with 15 or more employees must make “reasonable accommodations” for people who need them, unless that would place an “undue hardship” on the employer (that is, be too expensive, disruptive or difficult to provide).

But, as seen by the increasing number of anxiety-disorder-related discrimination complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (371 in 2019, up from 65 in 2006, according to the Journal), accommodation isn’t always fulfilled.

Mental illness can be more difficult to accommodate than physical illness, in part, because the way it affects someone’s work can differ from person to person, employment attorneys tell the Journal. And stereotypes and stigmas around types of mental illness also may prevent people from receiving what they’re entitled to, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

On their end, employees may wonder whether to disclose a mental illness at all during an interview or on the job. Ultimately, collaboration and planning are vital to make sure the essential functions of a job get done.

To help HR management and employees address this issue, we’ve provided answers to some frequently asked questions.

What qualifies as a disability for reasonable accommodation? Is depression a disability?

The ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 lists autism, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia as such impairments.

However, “not every time that somebody discloses a mental health condition does that mean that somebody is disabled under the law. And not every time that someone makes a disclosure does it mean that an employer has an obligation to modify the job or grant an accommodation,” Erik Eisenmann, an employment lawyer and partner at Husch Blackwell LLP, told BizTimes in Milwaukee. “But my advice would be that every time an employer receives information like that, there should be a procedure in place whereby a person within the organization can analyze it and knows what to do with that information on a case-by-case basis.”

What is a reasonable accommodation for depression and other mental illnesses at work?

According to the Labor Department Office of Disability Employment Policy, accommodations can include:

  • Allowing people to telecommute/work from home
  • Providing time off for doctor’s/therapy appointments
  • Providing flexible schedules
  • Offering flexible break times
  • Allowing employees to eat or drink at their desk to help mitigate the effects of some medications
  • Reducing exposure to workplace noise and other distractions
  • Providing a private workspace or headphones to minimize distractions

Many people with PTSD, especially military veterans, also benefit from having trained service dogs, so they should be allowed to bring them to work, just as a blind or deaf employee would.
The ADA also says accommodations can include “changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment like those that are enjoyed by other employees without disabilities,” such as access to company-owned amenities and transportation.

What constitutes workplace discrimination?

According to the EEOC, “The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.” Harassing someone with mental illness, not providing reasonable accommodations, or firing an employee after he or she discloses mental illness are some types of discrimination. For example, one Iraq War veteran in North Carolina is suing her employer over alleged harassment and restrictions it put on her PTSD service dog.

Should I disclose my mental illness in interviews?

It depends. Employers aren’t allowed to explicitly ask, but they can ask you if you’re able to perform the essential functions of a job that may be affected by your illness, according to Eisenmann, the employment attorney. You may want to disclose if your illness has kept you from working for long periods of time, according to The Muse. If you want ADA accommodations, you’ll have to disclose eventually, but it doesn’t have to be during the interview.

How do you resolve a case of disability discrimination at work?

First, talk to your employer. Make sure they know what the ADA requires and if they’re willing to change their policies to match it. If they’re not, then file a complaint with your company, employment attorney Lisa Guerin advises.

Also, file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or state equivalents. There are time limits: 300 days for states with laws against discrimination, 180 days for states without such laws. Lastly, file a lawsuit.

Hopefully, this information will help not just with legal compliance, but with making the workplace a more welcoming and successful place for everyone.

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Catherine Guiles is a copy editor/writer at SmartBrief. Connect with her on LinkedIn.