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The pandemic has created a significant increase in mental health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, the number of individuals indicating substance abuse, anxiety, depression and stress in the United States in June 2020 was double the rate anticipated pre-pandemic. As a result, the need for mental health support at work and the expectation that employers provide such support has also increased. 

Accommodations to Promote Workplace Mental Health

Encouraging employees to seek accommodations is to an employer’s benefit. Mental health issues that are not supported early may worsen. Making it easier for employees to take care of themselves and address their needs at work can help them stabilize and/or recover. If unaccommodated and repeatedly experiencing triggers at work, an employee’s condition is more likely to deteriorate. In the event an employee experiences a loss of control over their thinking, tolerance or behavior and actions, it will be difficult for them to work safely and effectively and a leave from work may be necessary. 

Common accommodations for mental health involve time, space and alterations to communications. More often than not the need for mental health accommodations is temporary. Time off for appointments or to lessen the amount of time spent at work can help an employee get treatment, work on recovery and, when leave has been involved, gradually transition back to regular work responsibilities and duties. For employees with anxiety or other conditions resulting in feelings of being overwhelmed, the ability to take unscheduled breaks for calming purposes may be needed. 

In regard to space, an employee may be triggered by the work environment. Bright lights, loud noises, constant distractions, interruptions and other factors may be aggravating. During flare ups of a mental health condition, management of specific environmental factors, or a temporary transfer to a calmer environment, can be helpful. If the ability to learn or concentrate is affected, reinforcing new information in writing and/or with on-the-job support can help an employee become comfortable with new skills and knowledge. 

How Accommodations for Mental Health Are Different

Mental health accommodations tend to start off differently than physical ones. It is typical for employers have health care providers complete a form specifying what the employee’s physical limitations are. From there, the process of identifying accommodation options for those restrictions begins. Because such forms are less common for mental health issues, the accommodation process is more likely to begin with a request for a specific accommodation. It may not be clear what the restrictions are. When an accommodation can be easily provided, this can simplify the process. Otherwise, it may create two unnecessary challenges:

  1. If the accommodation request has come from the health care provider, an employee may start the accommodation process, expecting the employer to follow the provider’s recommendation. Doing so may not be reasonable or practical. Health Care Providers are writing restrictions without being experts in the employer’s business or jobs. Employers, not health care providers, have the right to choose an effective accommodation. It is important to be clear about this from the start. 
  2. Without knowing what restrictions the employee has, it can be difficult to identify accommodation alternatives. This can be addressed by seeking restrictions documentation specifically for the mental health concern by using a form for that purpose such as the sample form here.
Conclusion

As with any accommodation request, the process is an interactive one between the employer and the employee. Working with the employee to understand their limitations and needs as well as how those can be addressed in the work setting will help both the employee and employer identify solutions. In the event that an accommodation provided does not work, the interactive process can help to identify alternatives. If the employer participates in the process with a sincere interest in supporting the employee and can balance that with the needs of the business, the process is most likely to yield an effective outcome. 

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