Mental Illness at Work

By Patricia M Trainor and WAKEUP CALL

The tragic death of Robin Williams causes us to reflect on mental illness and how it can overtake every aspect of a person’s life, including work. From the assembly line to the C-Suite, mental illness in the workplace is both widespread and shrouded in secrecy.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental disorders are common; about one in four American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder* in any given year. Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States, yet very few job applicants or employees openly discuss their mental illness. This is because despite being widespread, mental illness, whether one’s own disorder or a family member’s condition, still gives rise to a sense of shame or fear of stigma.

Mental illness can be treated and individuals diagnosed with mental illness can be productive employees, but lack of knowledge of treatment resources, cost of treatment, and the stigma associated with mental illness often stand in the way of obtaining care. Although individuals with mental illnesses are protected by the Americans with Disibilites Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), they fear, sometimes justifiably, that revealing their mental illness will end their chances of advancing at work and damage their relationships with co-workers.

Mental illness is often associated with negative qualities from unreliability to a proclivity to violence, even though these stereotypes are unfounded. In fact, for the vast majority of individuals with a mental disorder, employment provides stability and a sense of self-worth that benefits recovery.

HR can have a pivotal role in dealing with mental health at work, from benefits, to disability accommodations, to dealing with lost productivity. But, perhaps the most critical role for HR is leading the way in creating a culture where mental health is part of the organization’s overall commitment to wellness. Mental health can be one part of a strategic initiative to nurture your workforce so that corporate goals and objectives can be met.

Of course, any workplace initiative must be undertaken against the backdrop of relevant laws. In the case of mental health, employers need to be aware of their obligations under the ADA, FMLA, and comparable state laws.

An employee may need to take a leave of absence from work to obtain treatment or to care for a family member with a mental illness. The FMLA, applicable to employers with 50 or more employees, requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own or a covered family member’s “serious health condition,” including a physical or mental condition. The FMLA also provides, with a few exceptions, that employees returning from leave are entitled to be reinstated to the same or equivalent job.

FMLA leave may be taken on a reduced schedule or intermittent basis. Just as with chronic physical illnesses, an individual with a mental illness or a family member with a mental illness may need to take time off on a sporadic basis, rather than in one block of time.

The ADA, covering employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities, meaning a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities. The ADA also obligates employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability so that he or she can perform the essential functions of the job—unless to do so would cause an undue burden.

The ADA envisions an interactive process involving the employer and employee to achieve a reasonable accommodation. Employers have cost-free resources to assist in exploring possible accommodations, including the federal Department of Labor and the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Although accommodations must be tailored to the individual, the following are some accommodations that may be helpful for an employee with a mental illness, particularly if the disorder or medication interferes with the ability to concentrate, sleep, or deal with stress:

  • Flexible scheduling or telecommuting
  • Modified break schedule
  • Private or quiet space in which to work
  • Allowing the employee to play music using an ear bud
  • Increased lighting
  • Dividing large assignments into smaller increments
  • Auditory or written cues, as appropriate
  • Schedulers, organizers, or email applications that work as memory aids
  • Training in stress management techniques
  • Use of a support animal
  • Leave for counseling or other treatment
  • Additional time for training.

Robin Williams’ death is a reminder that mental illness is just that, an illness that can affect anyone, regardless of wealth, talent, or career.

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