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Mental Health

Author: Jessica Webb-Ayer, XpertHR Legal Editor

No workplace is immune to mental health issues, and employers that fail to think of mental health as a pressing workforce concern do so at their peril. According to federal statistics:

  • Nearly one in five American adults lives with some type of mental illness; and
  • One in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness (e.g., major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder).

With statistics like these, it is clear that employers need to think about the well-being of their employees. The following are key steps an employer can take to address mental health issues in the workplace.

1. Recognize Workplace Impact

Mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress and the fears surrounding them, can affect the workplace in a variety of different ways. Such issues can influence an employee's overall performance and relationships with supervisors and co-workers. For example, employees who are suffering from depression are more likely to be:

  • Frequently absent;
  • Easily distracted;
  • Less productive; and
  • Involved in workplace accidents.

2. Remember ADA and FMLA Issues

An employer also needs to understand and comply with employment laws that might come into play when an employee is dealing with mental health issues. Such laws include:

Many people easily recognize that a physical illness or disability may require a reasonable accommodation under the ADA or time off under the FMLA. But mental disabilities are also covered by the ADA and the FMLA.

It is important for an employer to create a good mental health work environment for employees, while at the same time maintaining compliant policies and practices. This means an employer should:

  • Recognize when FMLA leave or an ADA reasonable accommodation is needed;
  • Train supervisors to be aware of the signs of mental health disorders;
  • Leave the medical diagnoses to the medical professionals;
  • Begin engaging with the employee immediately;
  • Be open and flexible in considering various reasonable accommodations;
  • Use management techniques that support an inclusive workplace;
  • Maintain confidentiality; and
  • Take necessary steps if employees pose a direct threat to themselves or others.

3. Consider Health Care Benefits

Employer-sponsored health care benefits are a crucial part of an employer's overall benefit package and are highly valued by employees. Health care benefits may also be indispensable to an employee suffering from a mental health issue.

Luckily, employer-sponsored health care plans likely include coverage for mental health. The Affordable Care Act generally requires employers to offer essential health benefits without annual or lifetime dollar limits. Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment, are considered essential health benefits.

Additionally, federal mental health parity laws require a group health plan that covers mental health and substance use disorder benefits to make sure such benefits are equivalent to the medical and surgical benefits the plan offers. For example, this means a plan must apply the same deductibles, co-payments and visit limits to both types of benefits.

These mental health parity requirements apply to group health plans with more than 50 employees that provide mental health or substance use benefits. However, some states also have their own mental health parity laws that may apply to smaller employers.

4. Integrate Employee Assistance Programs

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are an important part of promoting the mental health of employees because they offer a variety of services on a confidential basis. An employee can call an EAP and speak to counselors with expertise in different areas such as psychology, finance or law.

Among other things, EAPs can help employees with combating:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse;
  • Stress;
  • Depression; and
  • Other mental health issues.

An EAP is most effective when it is integrated with an employer's other benefits, such as health plans, wellness programs and disease management programs. EAPs can also provide training to management on how to effectively handle behavioral problems and to determine when they should recommend an EAP to an employee.

5. Encourage Employees to Take Advantage of Paid Time Off and Other Benefits

Most employers offer some sort of paid time off benefits, which also can be helpful to employees dealing with a mental health issue. Types of paid leave may include:

  • Vacation days;
  • Personal days;
  • Holidays; and
  • Paid time off banks.

While the bulk of benefits that would be most helpful to the mental well-being of employees may be health insurance benefits, EAPs or paid time off, there are other things an employer shouldn't overlook promoting. For example, employers may offer helpful benefits such as discounts to gyms, skill-building courses or flexible working options.

Most employers have already made a substantial investment in benefit offerings that can help promote the mental health of their employees. However, offering these benefits alone is not enough. The employer also needs to encourage its employees to take advantage of all the resources and benefits in its catalog by using a wide range of forums to deliver engaging benefit messages.

6. Promote Mental Health

It is important for an employer to develop a strategic wellness plan that includes promoting mental well-being in the workplace. The strategies should be integrated into a variety of policies and practices, and may include:

  • Monitoring workplace mental well-being using employee surveys, absence data, etc.;
  • Designating an HR manager or other senior manager to be responsible for promoting mental health;
  • Encouraging a healthy workplace culture of open communication and inclusion;
  • Emphasizing and encouraging personal employee development;
  • Ensuring that employees are equipped to cope with changes in the workplace;
  • Fostering a culture that helps employees have a healthy work-life balance; and
  • Promoting benefits that help employees achieve mental health, such as employer-based health services and EAPs.