Many years ago I worked with a woman I’ll call Jane. Jane was any employer’s model employee. She was reliable, took pride in her work, got along well with her co-workers, and seemed to have bionic fingers—fast and accurate. Jane also suffered from schizophrenia. However, most co-workers had no idea. Jane was among those who benefited from the newest psychotropic drugs, which unfortunately caused her extreme fatigue. So Jane’s workweek primarily consisted of work and not much else.
Jane’s story, while inspiring, is not typical. Regrettably, the stigma associated with mental illness persists in American society. Often those with mental illness are regarded as malingering, having a weak character and/or posing a threat. But mental illness is not about choice or character defect. It is an equal opportunity disease, which does not discriminate. It affects men and women of all ages, races, and socio-economic classes.
A recent survey revealed that about a third of the employee-respondents wouldn’t disclose mental health issues because of fear of being targeted for workplace discrimination (Carolyn S. Dewa, Ph.D., International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, October 2014). However, while fears inhibit disclosure, there are factors to support disclosure and an employee’s willingness to seek treatment. While not the only factor, a strong, positive relationship with their manager was a key reason employees said they would disclose a mental health issue. This is good news because early and effective treatment benefits both employee and employer (by minimizing absenteeism and productivity losses). According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), “The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports [italics mine].” Being able to continue working, for example, often contributes to an employee’s sense of stability and self-worth, which can aid in recovery.
What can employers do to foster a mental health-friendly workplace? Employers can make certain they understand their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and relevant state laws. They can familiarize themselves with the many resources available to them and their employees, as well as the best practices of other employers. And, they can work to create a culture in which mental health is part of their organization’s overall commitment to wellness. In doing so, they can proactively promote a stigma-free work environment and encourage employees to avail themselves of existing resources—e.g., educational resources about prevention and treatment; employee assistance programs (EAP); health care insurance that provides mental health benefits on par with physical health benefit coverage levels, including prescription-drug coverage; paid time off (PTO) if needed; short-term disability leave; flexible work schedules that encourage work-life balance; etc. Also, they can demonstrate their openness to considering reasonable accommodations and/or temporary workplace restrictions that may include use of a service animal, an alternative work schedule and/or telecommuting, flexibility to attend psychiatric appointments, modified job responsibilities, and others.
A supportive manager can be an important source for providing education and information about resources and can model non-judgmental behaviors toward mental illness. It is vital for a manager to understand their obligation is not to assume the role of diagnostician or counselor, but to make disclosure safe, to respect the employee’s privacy and to provide the employee with information about available resources. Furthermore, the manager needs to involve their HR Department, as appropriate.
In addition to an organization’s EAP, here’s a list of some additional resources available to employers:
- EEOC Website: Contains information for employers and employees about the ADA and psychiatric disabilities. A 1997 notice titled, Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities may be particularly instructive; it provides practical instruction to employers and persons with mental/psychiatric disabilities on their respective rights and responsibilities.
- The American Psychological Association Center for Organizational Excellence: Provides many excellent resources for employers, including information about its annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards, designed to recognize organizations for their efforts to foster employee health and well-being while enhancing organizational performance. Information about the award process, as well as about annual award winners, can help employers in implementing their own best practices.
- U.S. Dept. of Labor website, Mental Health Parity: Contains links to multiple resources.
- The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health: Offers information and resources to assist employers in promoting workplace mental health.
- National Business Group on Health: Provides toolkits, web resources, survey data, information about strategies and best practices for dealing with health care issues, and more.
- The Right Direction: A joint educational initiative designed to promote early recognition of depression’s symptoms, to encourage employees and their families to seek help, and to provide employers with support tools and resources.
- The National Mental Health Information Center: Supports public health education, and helps connect health professionals and consumers to the organizations that can best answer their questions.
- Harvard Medical School
 Please note, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) identifies the following as serious mental illnesses: Major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder.
 The Centers for Disease Control’s website informs its readers that mental illnesses account for more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease, and nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime.