With the Right Support, Employees with Mental Illness Remain Productive: Here’s How Employers Can Help

As part of our two-part blog series for May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, last week, we covered how employers can play an active role in eradicating the stigma and how HR, managers, and coworkers can spot the warning signs of mental illness in their coworkers. In today’s post, we explore how companies can accommodate employees’ mental illness.

Employers have a responsibility toward the well-being of their employees, and their staff who suffer from mental illness are no different. Employees with a mental illness are fully able to work in stressful, demanding environments and, with the right accommodations and support, can effectively perform their job duties.

HR should offer to meet with individuals with mental illness to discuss the changes in their work performance or demeanor. Together they should create a plan and discuss what the company can do to help them thrive. This provides the opportunity for self-disclosure, an act that is entirely voluntary. However, an employee who fears backwash from admitting an illness—whether workplace harassment, negative career impact or otherwise—is less likely to reach out to an employer for help. It’s important HR and the employee’s manager are genuine and kind in their approach and ensure the employee knows they will not be reprimanded.

Many employees do not necessarily know they are suffering from mental illness, and it’s not HR’s function to diagnose. However, HR can foster an open dialogue where the employee is then presented with resources. HR can outline the various accommodations they have available for employees and ask if any of those seem helpful.

Not all mental illnesses are created equal under the law. Those defined as “a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” are considered a psychiatric disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and must be accommodated. These include but are not limited to anxiety disorder, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Finding the right accommodations may take some trial and error, according to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Many of the limitations attached to a mental health impairment can be solved simply by identifying and reducing triggers in the workplace, as well as tasks that are difficult to complete. Often, only a few tweaks to the work environment are needed to accommodate an employee’s challenges. A worker struggling to remain organized, for example, may benefit from software or tools that can help them track their tasks, or from sitting down with a supervisor to create a detailed, color-coded map of weekly deadlines and duties.

In some cases, employees might need full-time treatment for their illness. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), they are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period while remaining under the same employer-provided group health insurance. That period might be all an employee needs to return to work as their full self.

Mental illness is an umbrella term for a wide range of psychiatric disabilities, and every individual reacts differently to their illness. Above all, companies should remember that, despite the existing stigma, employees with a long-term mental illness can still be productive members of society and business—with the right support in the workplace.