Mental Illness in the Workplace: Reminders Related to the Germanwings Crash

By SHRM Online staff Mar 31, 2015

UPDATED 4/3/2015 to reflect new information that confirms the co-pilot acted delibrately in crashing the plane.

The actions of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who authorities have suggested deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, killing all 150 people aboard the plane, are raising questions about his mental stability.

The BBC reported April 3 that data from the second Germanwings "black box" flight recorder confirms the co-pilot acted deliberately and suggests he accelerated the plane's descent into the Alps. Additionally, theNew York Times has reported that Lubitz had informed Lufthansa that in 2009 he had suffered from severe depression. Lufthansa is the parent company of the budget Germanwings airline that operated the jet that crashed.

Lufthansa announced March 31 that "a search of its records found an email showing that Lubitz had informed the company of his condition as he was seeking to rejoin its training program after an absence of several months," according to The New York Times.

As the story unfolds, it serves as a reminder to employers to carefully assess how they could protect colleagues and customers from an employee whose mental illness might pose a safety threat.

Below, SHRM Online has collected some of its reporting and other resources on this issue.

After Mental Health Absence, Some Face Stigma
The stigma associated with mental health problems is still an issue. For the first time since 2006, the stigma is not decreasing among employers and, in some cases, it is increasing, according to the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey report.

Assess Potential Violence Promptly but Carefully

A recent court case highlights the tension between accommodating mentally ill workers and providing a safeworkplace for all.

Rely on Conduct Rules to Discipline Workplace Threats
The Americans with Disabilities Act’s direct-threat defense sounds like it would align seamlessly with an employer’s zero-tolerance workplace violence policies. But employers are on safer ground relying on their conduct rules than on the direct-threat defense when there may be a workplace threat, experts say.

Coping with Employees’ Mental Illnesses Can Be Challenging
Each year, more than 41 million Americans experience some type of mental illness, but it can be very difficult to know how to cope with this in the workplace—not only legally but also appropriately, while being respectful of privacy.

25% of EU Workers Severely Stressed
One-quarter of European workers feel stressed all or most of the time while on the job, negatively affecting their health, according to a report from Europe’s leading agencies on worker safety and health.

Employer Support for Mental Health Lacking
Although mental illness affects about 1 in 4 Americans each year and is a leading cause of workplace absenteeism and reduced productivity, more than 2 in 5 U.S. employees have no workplace support structures or programs they can turn to for help with issues such as stress, anxiety or depression, according to a 2014 poll.

Accommodating Mental Illness
Mental illness leads to more lost workdays than arthritis and back pain—so why are employers reluctant to make similar workplace accommodations for it?

Mental Health Quiz
Find out how much you know about mental health by taking this interactive quiz.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Policy: For Employees Only
Because employee assistance programs (EAPs) often deal with issues involving mental health and employee discipline, employers that provide EAP services must be aware of possible legal concerns surrounding those services (including confidentiality, privacy and mandatory referrals) and of the many federal laws that may apply to the design and administration of EAPs.

Murder-Suicide Leads to Award-Winning EAP
After an HR professional in Florida killed her four children and herself, a Society for Human Resource Management chapter created an employee assistance program that offered support to HR professionals who were struggling with work and family issues.

HR Q&A: How should an employer respond when an employee makes suicidal statements?
Suicide threats should always be taken seriously. The human resource professional or the employee’s supervisor may be the first person to identify a potentially suicidal employee, so it is critical to recognize the warning signs and encourage at-risk employees to seek help.

Wellness: Stress Management
Tips on managing and reducing stress in the workplace.


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