The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the effects of mental and behavioral health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. As we have begun to move closer to normalcy in the workplace, the global impacts of the pandemic continue to exacerbate past issues and create new ones.
Here in Kentucky we see this fact distressingly. For example, more than 2,000 deaths have been reported this year due to overdoses, the rise of which is often linked to unresolved mental and behavioral health issues. On the other hand, many people are also increasingly open to discussing mental health and the challenges associated with it, among themselves and with their employers. As an employer, it is more important than ever to understand your role in addressing these workplace conditions and the practical steps you can take to support your employees.
Many employers may not consider the definition of “disability” to include mental health issues. A narrow view of disability may inhibit employees’ confidence in requesting accommodations, or they may be unaware of their ability to do so or the process for obtaining accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers of a certain size to provide reasonable accommodations to eligible individuals.
According to the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities. Not all employees experiencing stress or anxiety will qualify for accommodation, but severe enough mental health issues will meet the threshold. Employers must recognize an employee’s condition as a disability and provide associated support.
When granting workplace accommodations, an employer is permitted to request more information from the employee to develop the best accommodation plan reasonably possible for that company. Specific items such as notes from a physician or other healthcare professional, functional limitations of mental health condition, and demonstrated need for reasonable accommodation can all be used to develop a support plan. to your employee. This information must be confidential and separate from the employee’s personnel file.
Additionally, Kentucky recently passed a law to assist employers who assist employees with substance use disorders, providing reduced risk of liability for hiring employees with such disorders.
As an employer, you can take practical steps to provide mental health support to your employees to create a positive and accommodating work environment. Employers can consider the following steps to achieve this goal:
• Employers should evaluate existing company policies to ensure that they are up to date with ADA regulations and recommendations and that these policies are accessible to all employees. Employee policies must explicitly include mental health issues as a recognized condition for ADA accommodations.
• Consider adding training and programs to your company’s operations to educate employees and HR representatives about mental health resources. Your human resources department can also communicate available resources, mental health webinars, and information about common signs of anxiety, PTSD, and depression to employees. These communications also encourage employees to be aware of these signs in their behavior and those around them.
• Make sure employees know what constitutes an ADA-recognized disability and the process for receiving accommodations in the workplace. Let them know they are supported and direct those who might need support to company and community resources for help. Be aware of the language you and your employees use to discuss mental health to avoid additional stigma.
As an employer, you have a legal responsibility to your employees to ensure that they can work effectively in an environment that meets the needs of their disability. Consider implementing these or your own programming processes and ideas to keep our community running and healthy.
Lisa English Hinkle is a health lawyer with McBrayer PLLC. She can be reached at [email protected] Visit mcbrayerfirm.com to learn more about legal issues surrounding healthcare.