The FMLA and a Winning First Step Toward Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

On March 6, 2022, HBO premiered the show Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, chronicling the showtime era of the Lakers dynasty. The show is based on the book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman. The show focused not only on star athletes like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but also on the coaching staff and management team. Winning Time also spends a great deal of time focused on former Lakers player and later coach Jerry West. Specifically, the show portrays West as a man in crisis, with a propensity for angry outbursts and tantrums. Haunted by his childhood trauma and failed attempts to win an NBA title, West’s character is, for all intents and purposes, depressed. More importantly, West’s mental state does not go unnoticed. In fact, his mental state is addressed throughout the show.

EntertainHR Winning Time FMLA
Jason Clarke as Jerry West in HBO’s ‘Winning Time’
(Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO)

During episode 2, Lakers owner Jerry Buss gives West what he always wanted: the money to create a championship roster. Faced with the pressure to succeed, West retreats to his pool house and remains there until he is convinced to return to work. According to West’s wife, this happened often during West’s career. Simply put, West needed time off. But, in the 1980s, there were no federal laws protecting employees like West. Today, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), covered employees are granted unpaid leave for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

A New Era of Awareness

As the world and its workforce attempt to reconcile the effects of COVID-19, mental health in the workplace has become a hot topic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. The WHO believes one explanation for this increase is the unprecedented stress caused by the social isolation resulting from the pandemic. These increases appear to be linked to the constraints on employees’ ability to work, seek support from loved ones, and engage in their communities. While employees may not typically throw a trophy through a glass door like West in Winning Time, employees may suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses. Now more than ever, employers must effectuate a winning strategy for addressing mental illness in the workplace. The first should be ensuring employees have access to their right to leave under the FMLA.  

The FMLA provides employees with unpaid leave for serious health conditions without risking their employment. Under the FMLA, an employee is provided with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period. Employees who use their FMLA leave also have a right to return to work after taking said leave. In short, an employee may take leave for a serious mental health condition requiring inpatient care or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider. For example, employees diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may take time off to visit a doctor or when they are unable to work due to their condition. In rare circumstances, clear abnormalities in an employee’s behavior may constitute constructive notice of a serious health condition, requiring an employer to notify the employee of his or her right to FMLA leave.

Employers have grown accustomed to managing the rights and protections granted to employees by the FMLA but only as they relate to physical illness. Now, as stress and anxiety in the workplace rise, employers must be diligent in providing employees suffering from mental illnesses the same protections under the FMLA as employees with a physical illness.

Key Takeaway

Mental and physical health conditions are considered serious health conditions under the FMLA if they require inpatient care or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider. Inpatient care requires an overnight stay in a hospital or another medical care facility. And, chronic conditions such as anxiety and depression are considered mental health conditions requiring continuing treatment. If an employee meets one of these two standards, he or she is entitled to unpaid leave under the FMLA.

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