One of the thornier aspects of owning a company is dealing with human resources. The complexity of this process is only compounded when the issue of employee mental illness comes up. However, conscientious employers can fulfill their legal responsibilities while minimizing their risk of liability provided they act in a responsible and thoughtful manner.

The ADA and you

As this HR Examiner piece points out, mental illness is incredibly common in the United States, mostly represented in the form of emotional disorders like anxiety or depression. As such, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you will come to employ someone who struggles with mental illness. As per the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, employers cannot discriminate against people who have physical or mental disabilities when making hiring decisions. That means you cannot ask someone whether or not they are disabled. Additionally, if your company employs more than 15 people, you are required to make “reasonable adjustments” for your disabled employees.

Reasonable employee accommodations

Since “reasonable adjustments” is a fairly broad term, it’s a good idea to have some perspective on how the courts view certain mental health accommodations. This post on the website of the Mental Health Association of Pennsylvania covers a number of employer accommodations that can be considered reasonable, such as granting an employee mental health leave, modifying an employee’s work schedule, making simple modifications to the workplace and regularly meeting with an employee who has a mental health issue to make sure their needs are being met. The MHAP’s list is by no means comprehensive, but it does offer a number of useful guidelines.

Unreasonable employee accommodations

The ADA has two exemptions for the reasonable accommodations provision. One, employers are not required to make accommodations for an employee that would cause the business to experience “undue hardship.” Second, employers are not required to make exemptions for employees that can be considered “direct threats” to the health and safety of themselves or others in the workplace. As undue hardship and direct threats are both fairly broad terms, check out this Connecticut Employment Law blog post to get a better understanding of what might be considered unreasonable accommodations under the law.

Talking to an employee about their mental illness

If you believe that one of your employees has a mental illness that has begun to affect the quality of their work, it’s okay to reach out. Given the stigma that exists around mental illness, you should approach the subject sensitively and stress the fact you would not fire someone for having a mental disorder. It’s also reasonable to ask if they need some time off or if there’s anything you can do as an owner to better accommodate their illness. If you still feel uneasy about starting such a dialogue with one of your employees, you should enlist the services of an experienced labor attorney who can help you navigate the ins and outs of state and federal law regarding mental disability.

This article was written by Mario McKellop for Small Business Pulse


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