Depression: 7 Employer Considerations for Reasonable Accommodations

HR Policies & Procedures
by Chris Ceplenski

Dealing with employees suffering from depression is a delicate topic. The number of people seeking treatment for depression in the U.S. is now 27 million a year, and the CDC notes that the most likely groups to suffer from depression are adults in the 40 to 59 age range. With these statistics, most employers will face an employee suffering from depression at some point.

What Reasonable Accommodations Might be Appropriate for an Employee With Depression?

Individuals suffering from depression often have symptoms that spill over into many aspects of the working environment. For example, they may have trouble keeping a good attendance record, or may have difficulty concentrating or remembering the details of work tasks. They also may have difficulty controlling emotions and have problems with fatigue. Each of these areas can be addressed with reasonable accommodations.

Here are some sample reasonable accommodations, broken down by a few of the various aspects where depression becomes a factor in the workplace.

Attendance:

  • Allow flexible scheduling if they have intermittent absences (if you give this as a reasonable accommodation, it can’t be counted as FMLA time, however)
  • Modify the work schedule

Concentration:

  • Reduce distractions
  • Increase natural lighting or provide full spectrum lighting
  • Allow telecommuting
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks
  • Restructure the job

Emotions:

  • Allow flexible break times to handle emotions
  • Give information on stress management techniques

Fatigue:

  • Provide goal-oriented workload
  • Reduce tasks

Memory:

  • Provide memory aids such as schedulers, organizers, etc.
  • Provide a job coach or a mentor
  • Allow additional training time
  • Provide written checklists

Organization:

  • Use daily, weekly, and monthly task lists
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and goals

Last but not least, providing a leave of absence can be an option. “Leave as a reasonable accommodation is a last resort, but it may well be an accommodation and here’s the key: if the leave will allow that individual to recover sufficiently to return to work within a finite and reasonable period of time.” Patricia Eyres explained in a recent BLR webinar.

As such, be aware that a blanket prohibition on any leave in excess of FMLA leave could get you into trouble with the EEOC. Since a small extension of leave could be a valid reasonable accommodation, it can actually be deemed as discrimination to deny it without an individualized assessment.

“One size fits all may seem to be very fair. It may seem to be blind to the differences among people . . . not making judgment calls or distinctions between employees. But if in fact you do that, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says you are committing disability discrimination because you are not conducting an interactive process that looks at the individuality of the circumstances: the individual’s needs, the essential job functions, and your business needs in that window of time.” Eyres advised.

7 Considerations for Evaluating Reasonable Accommodation for an Employee with Depression

This is a checklist to use after you already have a list of essential functions and a list of work restrictions and functional limitations. This is where you begin to have a dialog with the employee.

“That is a dialogue, not a monologue. You don’t do all of the talking. The employee doesn’t do all of the talking. It’s a give and take. It’s a meet-and-confer, not a defeat-and-deter. It’s not designed to close the analysis of potential accommodations but to open them up—to look at all potential alternatives.” Eyres explained.

Here are 7 considerations for evaluating reasonable accommodation for someone with depression:

  1. What limitations is the employee with depression experiencing?
  2. How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
  3. What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
  4. What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
  5. Has the employee with a mental health impairment already been consulted regarding possible accommodations?
  6. Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee with a mental health impairment again to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
  7. Do supervisors or managers need training regarding mental health impairments?

Employers should be “going through a deliberate, consistent process of looking at what can we do to make this work—and then [applying] the reality of our business needs.” Eyres advised. By doing so, “you will be in a better position if you have to decline reasonably accommodating someone with a depressive disorder or other kind of condition. You’ll be in a better position to defend your judgment and your decision.”

For more information on reasonable accommodations for employees with depression, order the webinar recording of “Depression in the Workplace: Strategies for Seamlessly Handling FMLA Requests and ADA Accommodations.” To register for a future webinar, visit http://store.blr.com/events/webinars.

Patricia S. Eyres, Esq., the managing partner of Eyres Law Group, LLP, focuses on helping employers manage disability discrimination issues for both workers’ comp and non-occupational disabilities. As president of Litigation Management & Training Services and CEO/Publisher of Proactive Law Press, LLC, Eyres trains managers and supervisors on how to recognize risks, prevent lawsuits, and maintain defensible documentation.

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  1. Barb        
    December 30, 2013 7:38 pm

    How much of a role should compassion play? Can you get into legal trouble if your compassion prompts you to go farther than you might otherwise?