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Mental Illness in the Workplace Is Now Being Addressed


July 23, 2015
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Mental illness in the workplace can be a difficult subject for both employers and employees, but the Germanwings tragedy makes it clear that this should be a necessary discussion.

mental illness in the workplace

Approximately 25 percent of Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Yet, it is easy to understand why both sides are hesitant to talk about mental illness in the workplace. On the one hand, the employee does not wish to have his/her privacy destroyed, and it is logical that the employee will not wish to be stigmatized with public knowledge of having mental health issues. The employer has a legitimate interest in fulfilling his or her business’ mission, which includes making money and satisfying contractual requirements. The affected employee may be a critical participant in the business operation whose absence may significantly impact the ability to complete the business mission. The truth is, there is no easy solution for addressing mental illness in the workplace, however, it is very important.

The Germanwings Tragedy

The Germanwings pilot feared that he would lose his license to fly if the true state of his depression became known. By hiding his depression, his mental illness overcame him to the point that he was willing to kill himself and his passengers. When examining the underlying factors, no one would agree that this represented a fair outcome to the many innocent people who died with the young pilot.

Furthermore, the dilemma of mental illness in the workplace is exponentially complicated by the realization that treating mental illness is not like treating a cold. With respect to the members of the mental health profession, the “solution” is often quite elusive. How far does an employer have to go before “going the extra mile” becomes way too much?

Signs there needs to be a conversation between employer & employee regarding mental illness in the workplace

Sooner or later, absences and other instances of aberrant behavior require explanation. The reason(s) proffered must be reasonably specific to help the employer to understand the necessity of the absence and the anticipated time needed to care for the problem. The justification for the absence may require a doctor’s explanation (there is no standard for the degree of specificity except that it must informative). The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and other laws protect the personal health information of the employee, and there are significant, adverse consequences for the employer’s failure to adhere to such requirements.

Talking to the employer may be necessary but often delicate.  Whether this helps the employee or not will depend upon many factors to include the intelligence and sensitivity of the receiving party. Frequently, the employer would rather not know the truth because actual knowledge can make any decision more difficult and more likely to give rise to a possible claim of employment discrimination. Employers are well-advised to define the “essential functions of the job” in advance in a job description so that a reasonably objective determination can be made as to whether the illness and the employee’s absence(s) can be accommodated.

Stress-related illness and chronic requests for time off can make the whole issue of mental illness in the workplace even more murky. Everyone has stress. If we cannot handle stress, does this mean that we have a mental illness? What if the employee’s tolerance of stress is inordinately low? Must the employer indulge this? Any adverse action, even if totally justified, can give rise to claims of discrimination and violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or other laws that protect employees with disabilities.

Although we try to be sensitive and enlightened as a society when it comes to mental illness in the workplace, the laws that are designed to protect often become the sword rather than the shield.