Ask the HR Pro
By Ashleigh Petersen Ashley Cuttino, Ogletree Deakins, co-chair COVID-19 Litigation Practice Group
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Ask the HR Pro

Human Resources Tip of the Month

Q: I am noticing that many employees seem burnt out and their job performance is suffering. Some have even presented workplace stress as a concern and have asked for time off to see a physician or to alleviate side effects of medication. What are some tips to handle these types of requests?

A: Mental illness in the workplace continues to rise, and the pandemic only compounded these concerns. According to the Job Accommodation Network, approximately one in four adults experience a mental health condition. With a return to normal operations at many businesses, some workers also may now begin to experience burnout, which can exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. Regardless of the reason, anxiety, depression and other mental conditions are prevalent in the workplace and employers should establish a plan to cultivate a healthy workplace and comply with their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires that employers with 15 or more employees engage in a good faith, interactive discussion with employees and/or applicants with disabilities to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment that enables a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of his/her position. For a mental impairment to constitute a disability under the ADA, it must substantially limit one or more major life activities. Examples of major life activities include learning, thinking, concentrating, interacting with others, performing manual tasks and working. Symptoms of mental illness are not always obvious, but ongoing changes in work patterns, behaviors, performance and attendance could indicate an underlying mental health problem that may require treatment.

Employers should recognize when an employee request triggers the need for possible accommodation. Managers and supervisors should listen for requests, reports or words that sound like leave requests or requests for help, even in a remote work environment.

There is no magic language an employee must use. Supervisors must be trained to recognize requests and pass the baton to the Human Resources department, if necessary. The interactive discussion will be unique to each employee and likely will include a review of the employee’s job description to identify the essential and non-essential functions of the job and input from the employee concerning his/her physical, mental and/or emotional limitations. On the other hand, managers and supervisors should be wary of regarding an employee as disabled even if they are aware that an employee has a condition or is taking medication for a condition if the employee does not request an accommodation and is able to perform the essential functions of his/her job.

Common accommodations for employees suffering from the effects of mental illness may include:

  • More frequent breaks.
  • Leave.
  • Removal of distractions in the work area.
  • Private office space.
  • Increased natural lighting.
  • Reduction of workplace noise.
  • Modification of nonessential job duties or eliminating unnecessary tasks.
  • Food or beverage at workstations to mitigate side effects of medication.

Hidden costs may be associated with mental illness because it may create inconsistent work patterns or impair performance. Investing in workplace mental health and wellness increases retention, recruitment and productivity; lowers absenteeism, disability leave and medical costs; and reduces employee-related risks and potential liabilities.

Employee assistance programs often are put in place to provide employees with guided assistance to prevent and treat mental illness. Fitness programs and stress management training also can be useful tools to promote better physical and emotional health. Employers who wish to implement these types of programs should ensure that the provisions are clearly communicated to employees and appropriate confidentiality is maintained.

This column is provided by Ogletree Deakins, Atlanta, as part of a partnership with the American Rental Association (ARA) for ARA’s Human Resources Assistance Program. ARA members can receive a single sign on from the ARA webpage to a microsite specific to ARA on the Ogletree Deakins platform; get access to two 30-minute calls with an HR professional per year; access to an FAQ section as well as to Ogletree Deakins’ library of webinars; and access to Ogletree Deakins’ ARA-specific webinars. To learn more, visit ARArental.org/Manage-Business/HR.

Ashleigh Petersen

Ashleigh PetersenAshleigh Petersen

Ashleigh Petersen is the associate editor for Rental Management. She writes news and feature articles, plus coordinates the monthly Safety Issue and several sections in the magazine. Ashleigh loves spending time with her husband and young son, baking, gardening and listening to true crime and comedy podcasts.

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