May 1, 2012

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Balancing Act

Addressing Mental Health Creates a Better Workplace

Di Lewis

May 1, 2012

Rebecca Glather says it’s not a question of whether or not you employ someone with mental illness. Every employer does.

Glather, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health Utah, says workplaces that don’t offer mental care end up paying for it anyway, either through general practitioner visits, absenteeism, poor productivity or employees who self medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Thomas Harrison, clinical director for Psychotherapy Associates, says he knows many employers are reluctant to provide comprehensive care for mental health. However, by not doing so, workplaces create a vicious cycle where employees feel the need to hide what’s happening and don’t get proper treatment, he says.

The issue of mental health and the workplace raises several thorny questions. What can employers do to more effectively support employees? And how does an employee get the care needed while making reasonable compromises with an employer?

One in Four
Treating mental illness as something disconnected from the workplace is a mistake, Glather says, because untreated or undertreated mental illness has serious ramifications for the workplace.

Glather says at least 25 percent of people in the workforce have a mental illness; Harrison estimates closer to one-third, with 12 percent of those having a severe or significant mental illness.

The most common mental illnesses in Utah are generalized anxiety disorder and dysthymia, essentially a milder form of depression, Harrison says.

While Utah ranks high in the nation for antidepressant use, Glather says there’s no one clear reason why. People in rural areas and cities at high altitudes tend to have higher rates of mental illness, as do minority groups. She says some people have suggested a link to the “culture of perfection” in the state. Even more troubling, the state is in the top 10 nationwide for suicide and first in suicide ideation.

Many people think mental illness is a problem that affects “other people,” says Harrison. But marital problems, an ailing parent, a lost job or any number of stressors can be a trigger for mental illness.

The economic downturn has also caused problems. “With the crunch, employers really went into a time when they didn’t hire new people but they added to workload,” Harrison says. “There’s nothing more damaging to mental health than being in a place where you can never finish.”

Ultimately, though, mental illness is a problem that can impact anyone. Harrison completed 11 years of college and taught for 30 years. “To do that, you have to be a bit obsessive compulsive. To be a CEO of a company, you have to be a bit obsessive compulsive…Give people a break. All of us have some sort of mental illness.”

The Fine Print
With such a high rate of people with a mental illness, it’s clear every workplace is impacted by mental health issues. So what are employers legally required to do?

Laura Boswell, staff attorney at the Disability Law Center, says the most relevant law is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies to government entities and private employers with more than 15 employees.

What the ADA comes down to, Boswell says, is reasonable accommodation. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employee to help them do their job.

Boswell most often hears questions from employers about what a reasonable accommodation is. Many are worried they must do everything an employee requests for fear of legal backlash, but that’s not true, she says.

Accommodations for mental illness can be things like a working some days from home or moving work breaks to a different time to fit a certain medication schedule. Once an employee requests an accommodation, Boswell says that should trigger a conversation with the employer.

“The ADA doesn’t say the employee gets the exact specific thing they request,” she adds. “It has to be a reasonable thing.”

An employee with mental illness is not required to disclose it to their employer. However, Boswell says if they are asking for an accommodation under the law, they do have to disclose it, though specifics are not necessary.

Boswell tells clients that if they feel like they need a reasonable accommodation, then come prepared. Bring a note from a doctor supporting the claim of disability and have an accommodation request already in mind.

“Because there is a stigma, employers start to spin out various situations…. If you come prepared with a specific scenario and accommodation then employers are more likely to not freak out,” Boswell says.

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