'Soft' Costs Can Help Manage Employees with Mental Disabilities

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 15, 2017
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This is the first article in a series about working with different workplace populations.

​More than 43 million adults in America experience mental illness in a given year. Helping them be productive in the workplace may require some accommodations from the employer—and those may be free or cost only a little patience and empathy, said Brenda S. Kasper, Esq., SHRM-SCP.

Common mental health conditions for employees are depression, anxiety and panic disorders, bipolar and other mood disorders, attention disorders, autism-spectrum disorders, learning disorders, and substance abuse and addiction, she said March 14 at the Society for Human Resource Management Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

While some people may wish to use a mental disability to excuse inappropriate behavior, most work productively and do not need an accommodation, Kasper said.

Accommodation starts with talking to the employee. Mental disability accommodations often require "soft" costs rather than out-of-pocket expenses, she said. She recalled the employee who was allowed to bring a pet hedgehog to work; it helped offset the worker's panic attacks.

Another employee, who worked quietly at her cubicle inputting data, came to work one day with tin foil sticking from her ears because she thought it helped drown out the voices she heard. The employee didn't interact with clients or customers, and while Kasper acknowledged it looked "weird," she likened it to someone wearing large earrings.

Understand the Employee's Work Limitations

Mental disabilities can be cognitive, social, emotional or physical.

"When doing mental health accommodations, you don't care what the diagnosis is. What you really care about is what is the limitation [or work restriction] caused by the disability," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing an Accessible Workplace]

A person with a cognitive disability, for example, typically has difficulty following directions and organizing work tasks, concentrating, making decisions and solving problems, learning new tasks, and remembering old ones, according to Kasper.

"Soft" accommodations for that employee could include dividing large assignments into smaller goals, reducing distractions, using to-do lists, using "white noise," and providing space enclosures or private office space.

"Ask 'How can we help you do your job? What, if any, limitations do you have? For how long [do you need the accommodation]? What, if any, accommodation suggestions do you have?' " 

Kasper shared the following accommodations that have been successful with employees who have mental disabilities:

  • Allow the employee more time to perform tasks; this could involve stretching a deadline.
  • Accept a longer learning period. Kasper pointed to the example of a payroll employee who returned to work after undergoing electro-shock therapy. The woman could not remember how to do her job and had to be re-trained.
  • Change the way the supervisor interacts with the employee.
  • Adapt the employee's interpersonal environment, such as sound-proofing the work space, or providing space dividers or visual barriers.
  • Provide flexible scheduling and leave, she said, but note this is not an open-ended accommodation.

She also offered HR professionals the following tips:

  • Don't diagnose the employee; you are not a health care professional.
  • Help the employee with his or her job; do not get entangled in personal lives.
  • Focus on the employee's work limitations to find an effective accommodation.
  • While other employees may not like or approve of the accommodation, or believe it necessary, that is irrelevant in the analysis of the accommodation needed.
  • Don't make "no" your default answer. Always present accommodation ideas even if the employee does not. 
  • Determine the employee's need through discussion. You don't have to give employees exactly what they want, Kasper noted. "You have to give them what they need to get the job done." 

Kasper highly recommended the Job Accommodation Network as a good source for HR professionals, as well as the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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