Mental Health Illness in the Workplace 11:01, July 10, 2016

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Mental Health Illness in the Workplace

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For a moment, imagine you go to bed feeling a little off—you’re not sure what it is, but you can’t shake it and eventually manage to fall asleep.

You toss and turn all night, waking up exhausted and wondering how much sleep you actually got.

Your alarm clock blares and it’s time to get ready for work. That feeling, the uneasy one from the night before, returns.

You’ve felt like this before; it comes and goes.

As you head to work for the day, you reason with yourself to get through the next eight hours. You tell yourself this often.

When you arrive to work, you feel like you’re wearing a mask.

Mental illness is often not something that can easily be seen on the surface—or at all—and is often not discussed in social gatherings, especially not in professional environments. However, not being able to see mental illness, and not talking about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In fact, about 18% of adults reading this article has a mental illness. Those who have a mental health condition are obligated to take it with them to work, hiding and suppressing it, struggling to work around it.

In this piece, we will explore some of the issues surrounding the disclosure of mental disabilities in the workplace and how employers can create and maintain a safe space for employees.

The Pros and Cons of Disclosure

Many people suffering from a mental health disability wonder if they should disclose it to their employer at all. On top of the worry of being judged, there can be a daily routine that one who has a mental illness must go through while at work. Difficulties can include strained workplace relationships, decreased quality of work, and symptom triggers that arise from stressful situations.

Along with the aforementioned difficulties, there is also a stigma against mental illness. In 1999, the U.S. Surgeon General labeled stigma as “perhaps the biggest barrier to mental health care.” Stigmatizing people who have a mental health condition creates a distance between those individuals and the rest of society, which can lead to isolation.

As with stigmas, the prevalence of stereotypes and misconceptions about mental health are also factors that negatively impact those who have a mental illness. Employees who have a mental illness might elect to keep their condition under wraps at the workplace for a number of reasons. Employees might fear that their employer will interpret their disorder as lack of interest or unwillingness to carry out job functions, or fear being labeled as “weird,” “crazy,” or “weak.”

For more information on disclosing a mental health condition to others, visit the National Alliance of Mental Illness website.

Mental Illness in the Workplace

One in five American adults suffer from at least one mental health disorder. That’s approximately 43.8 million people (in America alone). This commonly unspoken health issue is more common than many people think, and it should not be taken lightly, especially in the workplace.

For employers looking to create a safe working environment with mental health in mind, here are some key components to supporting mental health at work:

   *   Provide easy access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). These programs can provide employees with help in dealing with stress-related, emotional, and psychiatric demands that could hinder workplace effectiveness.

   *   Ensure adequate mental health coverage. Employers can offer insurance options that cover mental health needs. If such options are not offered, the overall medical costs for the employee and employer can exponentially increase.

   *   Make reasonable accommodations. This includes flexible work hours or allowing employees to telecommute, which helps with factors such as doctor appointments.

   *   Open up the conversation to discuss mental health at work. Helps employees feel comfortable communicating with their coworkers without fear or stigma.

   *   Offer support. Just as an employer or employees send their coworker well wishes when sick, it’s important to create an environment where people check in on one another. If an employee has revealed to his/her coworkers/employer about having a mental illness, being aware of any concerns (such as missing a lot of work) and checking in can help one feel less isolated and more supported. However, it’s also important not to cross any lines of comfort.

“People living with mental illnesses want the same healthy workplace environments as everyone else,” states an article published on Mental Health America. “Ignoring mental health in the workplace causes massive losses in a business’s bottom line and creates hardship for employees. Implementing workplace policies and efforts that help ensure the comfort of employees with mental health illnesses can create a more open and productive work environment.”

As an employer, it’s crucial to take any fears and hesitancies your employees may have and create a work environment they feel they can communicate and work safely in. Adopt and implement an equal employment opportunity policy where privileges of employment will not be affected by protected characteristics, such as a worker’s disability. Additionally, ensure employees avoid potentially offensive language like “crazy” and “psycho” and know how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations.

The Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one of more major life activities.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “if you have a physical or mental disability and are qualified to do a job, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects you from job discrimination. Being qualified means you must satisfy an employer’s requirements for the job and be able to perform essential functions on your own or with reasonable accommodation. An employer cannot refuse to hire you because your disability prevents you from performing duties that are not essential to the job.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s Title I section “prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment, including recruitment, pre-employment screening, hiring, compensation, benefits, training, layoffs, termination, and promotions and requires that most employers provide reasonable accommodations for qualified job applicants and employees with known disabilities.” Reasonable accommodations are any change(s) made in the work environment that allows people with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. The Department of Labor (DOL) states that “most employers are legally required to provide accommodations for a job applicant or worker with a known disability.”

Though the decision is entirely up to the employee, it can be risky to keep a health disability from an employer if it affects one’s job performance. By making the work environment a communicative and accommodating one, employers can help pave the way to find a balance between employee responsibilities and rights. Together, employers and employees can use the interactive process to find a solution a works for both of them.

The Reality

It’s not uncommon for employers be fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing when an employee tells them about a mental health condition they have. In such cases, managers are hesitant about invading the employee’s privacy, violating their human rights, or making things uncomfortable. By communicating with employees about job-related issues, focusing on their ability to perform essential tasks and avoiding questions about medical conditions, the hesitance and discomfort on both ends can be lifted, allowing room to explore accommodations that can help both the employer and employee be more productive.

Training employees about inclusive language, discrimination, and how the make the workplace better can help create an inclusive work environment that prevents issues or conflicts before they arise. LawRoom provides online compliance training on workplace discrimination, ethics, disability accommodations and data security to thousands of companies and universities. To learn more, visit us here: LawRoom.com.

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Nicoleta Leontiades
Nicoleta Leontiades is an Instructional Writer at EverFi—assisting in drafting, editing, and customizing content for the company's courseware. With a BA in English Literature and predominantly a creative writer at heart, she enjoys working on the company blog and expanding her voice by researching and writing about a variety of issues that impact the well-being and rights of students and employees.

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