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Navigating Mental Health in the Workplace: Employers’ FAQs

Toby Graham

Navigating Mental Health in the Workplace: Employers’ FAQs

A healthy workplace is one in which workers and managers collaborate to promote the health, safety, and well-being of all workers, along with the sustainability of the workplace. That’s according to the World Health Organization.

A healthy workplace looks at the workplace’s culture and how it functions.

But I’ve got some sobering statistics for you:

  • In 2020, 21% of U.S. adults (52.9 million) experienced a mental health condition (source). And emerging from COVID has exacerbated the situation. According to Forbes, “The coronavirus pandemic led to increased diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.”
  • Add to that the fact that 59.277 million or 21.4% of people 12 and over have used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs within the last year. (source)

Given data points like these, the challenge of sustaining a healthy workplace is even more formidable these days and even more important to get right.

Signs of a Problem?

Q: How does HR go about handling an employee who shows signs of a mental illness? The suspected employee randomly blurts out unrelated topics when we are talking. How do I bring this up with the employee?

A: Based on the information you provided, I recommend having a conversation with the employee regarding their disruptive communication style. However, it is important to remember this conversation is about the essential functions of their position, identifying any unmet performance expectations, and clarifying communication requirements to meet the performance and function of the department. It would mostly be a coaching session with an opportunity to begin the interactive process should the employee request accommodation for social anxiety, for instance.

Q: What should employers do if they suspect an employee is under the influence of substances at work?

A: A solid place to start is to document your observations using a reasonable suspicion checklist. Here you can document physical and behavioral observations when there is a suspicion of drug or alcohol use. According to SHRM, “Employers with a comprehensive drug testing policy as part of their drug-free workplace program often include reasonable suspicion testing … Reasonable suspicion testing must be based on individualized suspicion of a particular employee, and employers need to document objective facts that would suggest to a reasonable person that the individual is under the influence in violation of company policy.“

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Q: A manager took leave for treatment for rehabilitation from substance abuse. He is back now with the same job title but won’t manage a team anymore. Is that OK?

A: No. Under the FMLA, you must provide the employee with the same or equivalent job with the same pay, shift, benefits, responsibilities, duties, and authority. Unless the employee is requesting a different position, he is to be fully restored to his previous position, including managing a team.

If they were out on an unprotected leave (personal or company policy), then so long as there is not an existing contract, agreement, or policy stating they are to be fully reinstated upon their return, they do not need to be restored. It’s up to your company’s discretion.

Q: When an employee returns to work after being in a treatment facility, do we need to continue letting them leave work for appointments? Do we need to request proof of visits?

A: If the employee has not exhausted their FMLA leave (and any applicable state leaves), you may request recertification of their need for treatment during working hours. If they have exhausted their FMLA, their appointments may be covered by sick time, paid time off, or your company policy. Once all of these options have been exhausted, it’s up to you whether you want to accommodate their schedule. You can deny their request if it poses an undue hardship for your business. Be sure you document your decision and rationale.

Q: One of our employees was experiencing anxiety and asked to go to the doctor. The clinic discharged the employee and denied the worker’s compensation claim. Do we offer FMLA information or time off?

A: For qualifying employers, FMLA should be provided when an employee expresses a need for it, even when a workers’ compensation claim has been initiated. Provide your employee with the FMLA paperwork and review what they submit to determine the proper designation and leave type (intermittent or the full 12 weeks). Depending on your state, your employee may be eligible for a state-type of FMLA leave. If they do not qualify for FMLA, you can evaluate his/her request for time off as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or a relevant company policy to determine if you can provide it and for how long.

Q: What about children under age 18? Are employees able to ask for leave to care for them?

A: Under FMLA, yes, employees are allowed to care for their child’s serious health condition. Also, check for any other types of leaves that may apply in your state.

Q: Do employers have a right to know an employee’s exact medical condition? If we don’t know what it is, how can we know if we can reasonably accommodate it or determine whether it is a severe condition?

A: Determining what medical facts are appropriate for employers to know to authorize leave under FMLA varies depending on the nature of the serious health condition and is left to the discretion of the healthcare provider completing the medical certification form. Employers may not reject an employee’s FMLA certification when it lacks a diagnosis if the information provided is otherwise sufficient to verify that the condition qualifies as a serious health condition. A medical certification can spell out limitations, time frames, treatment, and expected recovery without revealing the diagnosis itself.

Q: Do you need to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if you employ less than 50 people?

A: No, it is not legally required (unless you have an existing contract or agreement or if your company policy explicitly states you offer FMLA). However, if you are close to 50 employees or wish to provide FMLA, you are welcome to do so as long as you’re consistent and follow the federal regulations.

Additional Resource:
U.S. Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #28G: Certification of a Serious Health Condition Under the FMLA



Service Animals

Q: Do you have to allow service animals for an employee if it creates allergy issues for another employee?  

A: Generally, yes. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for affected employees unless doing creates an undue hardship for the employers. Below is an excellent resource on ways to accommodate both the service animal and the allergies of another employee.

Additional Resource:
Job Accommodation Network Consultant’s Corner: Volume 2, Issue 1

Should you need assistance with training or developing the proper policies, KPA can give you a hand with both.

Toby Graham

Toby manages the marketing communications team here at KPA. She's on a quest to help people tell clear, fun stories that their audience can relate to. She's a HUGE sugar junkie...and usually starts wandering the halls looking for cookies around 3pm daily.

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