By: Amy Epstein Gluck

Did you know that California passed a law last year that establishes voluntary standards for workplace mental health?

No? I didn’t either, and we should talk about this.

What Kind of Law?

Under the law, the state is creating guidelines to help companies strengthen access to mental health care for their employees, put strategies and programs in place, and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.

The point: normalize workplace mental health in the same ways that employers already promote physical health, so that an employee having severe mental health symptoms feels comfortable requesting accommodations, such as medical leave, in the same way an employee with cancer might request accommodations for treatment.

These are voluntary standards, i.e., there’s no penalty or punishment for noncompliance; rather, the law responds to an increasing number of employers seeking to adopt better strategies for dealing with mental health.

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Is Mental Health THAT Big of A Deal in Workplaces These Days?

The numbers would say yes to that—mental health conditions and impairments are, indeed, prevalent.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults suffer from mental illness in any given year.

Yet, one recent study states that nearly 85% of people say they’re uncomfortable discussing mental illness at work, and NAMI estimates that 8 in 10 workers with a mental health condition do not get treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with it. If people aren’t seeking treatment and are uncomfortable talking about mental illness at work, they sure aren’t seeking reasonable accommodations  either.

OK, So Mental Health IS a Big Deal, But Doesn’t Federal Law Require Employers To Provide Reasonable Accommodations?

Yes, of course.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to engage in an interactive process with an employee to determine reasonable accommodations that help[ an employee with a physical or mental health impairment perform the essential functions of his or her job.

Mental health conditions that may qualify for a reasonable accommodation are those that substantially limit one or more major life activities, including brain/neurological functions and activities like communicating, thinking, concentrating, regulating thoughts or emotions, and interacting with others. They can include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (currently the most prevalent mental health disorder among U.S. adults)
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia

As I said here, the ADA protects employees from workplace discrimination based on mental health impairments or perceived impairments.

With mental health disability claims steadily increasing, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently published two new guidelines offering additional explanations and helpful examples— Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights and The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for Reasonable Accommodation at Work.

California’s Voluntary Standards Help Companies With This Interactive Process While Reducing Stigma.

Companies like Levi Strauss & Co. have begun to include strategies to address mental health wellness through outreach, free coaching, and fostering support through peer-to-peer connections.

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Other companies have been working to support mental health by pressuring their insurers to offer better and more mental health benefits.

Some companies provide health coaches, mental health awareness training for managers and peer support groups in the workplace, hoping to build an atmosphere of understanding, so people feel comfortable talking about their conditions and asking for help.

Some companies have on-site meditation services and wellness centers to help employees access mental health resources, such as free counseling sessions, financial counseling and mobile apps that teach stress-management techniques.

Employer Takeaways

I think California is on to something here. From a legal POV, we advise employers to train managers, as well as the C-suite, to recognize requests for accommodations for mental health disorders.

We explain how important the interactive discussion is for legal compliance, and where employers can find an extensive list of accommodations for employees who suffer with mental health disorders including flexible scheduling, additional time to learn new tasks, time off for counseling, frequent breaks, and backup coverage for when the employee needs breaks, and telework, if needed.

These are necessary so that employees with mental health conditions are not discriminated against or harassed. But the California guidance provides a more holistic model that requires a top-down commitment to an organizational culture that invests in mental health.

After all, the average adult spends most of his or her waking hours at work. It seems that some mental health guidance is just what the doctor ordered.