Diversity & Inclusion

Questions and answers on accommodating employees with mental disabilities

by Jonathan R. Mook

The following article answers some common questions about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) recently promulgated guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and mental health conditions.

Q Why should employers review the EEOC’s mental health guidance?  Head with gears

A If they haven’t already dealt with the issue, many employers will be called on to address employees’ mental health conditions, given the fact that most people experience some type of mental health issue during the course of their lifetime. Moreover, people suffering from mental health conditions still face enormous stigma. Even though we may know intellectually that mental health problems are quite common and they aren’t a sign of personal weakness, the negative connotations of suffering from an illness like depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) certainly persist in today’s society. It’s just a fact of life.

Q How should we deal with accommodations for mental health conditions?

A I recommend that all requests for accommodations for medical conditions, including mental health conditions, be referred to HR for consideration. An employee may inform his supervisor or manager that he needs an accommodation, but the manager shouldn’t be the person who assesses the request and makes the determination. Rather, the protocol should be for the manager to refer the employee to HR so a professional who is trained on the ADA can make an assessment and respond to the accommodation request (with input from medical experts and legal counsel, if necessary).

Q How should HR evaluate an accommodation request from an employee with a mental condition?

A Employers have a legal obligation to evaluate accommodation requests from individuals with mental disabilities just as you are obligated to evaluate requests from employees or job applicants with physical disabilities. However, because mental disabilities are often hidden, you will usually need to spend more time and devote more attention to evaluating an accommodation request for a mental disability. You should assess the medical documentation supporting the employee’s claim that he has an ADA-covered disability and select an accommodation that will be effective in allowing him to get the work done.

Q When should HR professionals consult with outside experts?

A Despite advances in the field of psychiatry, appropriately diagnosing a person’s mental health condition isn’t a precise science. If HR is presented with a note in which an employee’s general practitioner states that she has PTSD and needs to take time off work or work from home, it’s difficult to know how to evaluate whether the employee has a legitimate mental disability that requires an accommodation or has simply convinced a doctor to write a note based on an incomplete evaluation. Thus, you should think through the additional medical information you will need to assess such a request and engage in the interactive process.

I usually recommend that an employer consult with a psychiatric expert who can (1) advise the employer about the types of medical information it should request from the employee, (2) assist the employer in evaluating the information received, and (3) provide suggestions for accommodations. Neither HR nor legal counsel should play doctor when determining what constitutes a legitimate accommodation request from an individual who says she is suffering from a mental disorder.

Q The EEOC includes telecommuting as a possible accommodation for mental health problems. Must we always grant a telecommuting request?

A The courts are in general agreement that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation in certain cases. However, the courts also recognize that telecommuting should be the exception, not the rule. Whether allowing an employee to work from home will be deemed an appropriate accommodation depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the employee’s job, the need for supervision, and the frequency and necessity of engaging in direct personal interaction with coworkers. If your company has a telecommuting policy, a reasonable accommodation may include modifying the policy (e.g., by waiving the requirement that an employee work one year before being eligible for telecommuting).

Q Why do many employers find accommodating employees with mental disabilities to be a challenge?

A The impact of a mental disability on an employee’s job performance and workplace interactions is often greater than the impact of a physical disability. Some types of mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, or PTSD, may result in disruptive behavior that affects coworkers, customers and clients, or supervisors. Because the reason for the inappropriate behavior may not be apparent, HR must be creative in accommodating an employee with a mental disability.

DiMuroGinsberg, PC partner Jonathan R. Mook is a nationally recognized authority on the ADA. He may be contacted at jmook@dimuro.com.