Now is a great time for HR departments to review their policies regarding the provision of reasonable accommodation to employees with mental disabilities.
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of most everyone, and perhaps an even steeper one on individuals with preexisting mental health issues.
With more and more employees returning to their workplaces, either on a hybrid or full-time basis, requests for mental-health-related job accommodations are on the rise. And that is putting the spotlight on the need to know what’s required of employers and how to deal with these requests efficiently and effectively.
Reasonable accommodation: The basics
The ADA requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees with disabilities unless doing so would cause them undue hardship. The law explicitly applies to significant mental impairments.
The EEOC has advised that there are three categories of accommodations. First, modifications or adjustments may be made to the job application process. Second, employers may modify or adjust the work environment or the way that a particular job is done. Finally, a modification or adjustment may enable an employee with a disability to enjoy the same employment benefits and privileges that exist for employees without disabilities.
Much has been written about exactly what constitutes “undue hardship.” Generally speaking, an employer can show undue hardship by establishing that a particular accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense. Relevant factors when making this determination include the nature and cost of the accommodation, the employer’s overall financial resources, and the impact that the accommodation would have on facility operations.
Special considerations for mental health
Some special considerations come into play with regard to job accommodations that relate specifically to mental health. For one thing, employers must remember that the request for accommodation may be made by a representative, such as a family member, friend or health professional.
An accommodation request triggers a duty on the part of the employer to engage in an interactive process that is designed to lead to the provision of an effective accommodation.
Several types of specific accommodations are particularly appropriate with respect to mental health impairments. The Department of Labor’s Office of disability policy has explained that accommodations relating to scheduling may be appropriate.
- Accommodations relating to scheduling, such as providing part-time hours or changes to start and end times.
- Provision of sick leave for reasons relating to mental health.
- Accommodations that are specifically related to break periods, such as providing more frequent breaks or backup coverage for them.
- On-site job coaches.
- Allowance for food or beverage at workstations when needed to mitigate the side effects of medication.
Other specific examples of possible modifications include reducing workplace noise and making adjustments to lighting.
Sometimes, it may be appropriate to provide the employee with equipment or technology that can help them perform essential job functions. Examples include a sound machine that emits white noise and a recording device that enables the employee to record training sessions and meetings.
Specific modifications with respect to management may also be appropriate. For example, a supervisor might schedule meetings more regularly to discuss any ongoing workplace issues.
Then and now
Also understand that an employee who had a mental illness or disorder before the pandemic but did not need accommodation for it may need it now. This is because the pandemic may have exacerbated a preexisting condition to the point where an accommodation is now needed.
A leave of absence is a form of accommodation under the ADA. In addition, leave may be required to be granted under the FMLA. In this regard, it is critical to remember that granting leave beyond the 12 weeks provided by the FMLA may be required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA if providing the additional leave does not cause the employer undue hardship. At the same time, employers are not required to provide indefinite leaves of absence.
One final point: The EEOC has shown it is not at all shy about enforcing the ADA’s requirements with respect to individuals with mental health impairments.
For HR pros, the time is now to be especially prepared to deal with COVID-related mental issues of employees.