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Supporting Staff With Mental Illness

photo of a woman wearing glasses holding the hand of another woman in distress

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, making it an opportune time to review some ways human resources professionals can support staff with mental illness.

More than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, and approximately one in 25 U.S. adults lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). With mental illnesses being among the most common health conditions in the country, it’s important for employers to be knowledgeable about available resources and encourage employees to seek help.

Employee Assistance Programs

Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  EAP services are provided by third-party professionals and include counseling, wellness advice, and financial and legal consultations. These services are offered to employees and their immediate family members at no cost to the employee.

Employers that provide an EAP should ensure they are marketing the program effectively and assure employees that the programs are confidential. The employer is not notified when an employee accesses their EAP benefits. In addition to marketing the program, human resources leaders should consider training supervisors on behaviors to look for and appropriate ways to refer an employee to the EAP.

Organizations that do not offer an EAP should consider adding the benefit. Employers cover the cost, which generally ranges from $1.50 to $2.00 per employee per month. Research from the National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago reveals employers that support mental health see a return of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health treatment. In the recent article The Economic Cost of Poor Employee Mental Health, Gallup estimates an annual $47.6 billion in lost productivity across the U.S. workforce.

More information on EAPs can be found in the HRX articles EAPs Could Reduce Employee Burnout and HR’s Role in Employee Mental Health.

ADA and Mental Health

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

The ADA prohibits discrimination against applicants and employees with a history of psychiatric disability. These individuals have a right to privacy, and they are not required to disclose their disability unless requesting an accommodation. Individuals have the right to a job accommodation unless this causes undue hardship to the employer.

Note that an employee may not always use the ADA terminology when requesting an accommodation. Supervisors should be able to recognize the clues and clarify when necessary.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) lists some examples of reasonable accommodations, including:

  • Flexible workplace ­— Telecommuting and/or working from home
  • Scheduling — Part-time work hours, job sharing, adjustments in the start or end of work hours, compensation time and/or “make up” of missed time
  • Leave — Sick leave for reasons related to mental health, flexible use of vacation time, additional unpaid or administrative leave for treatment or recovery, leaves of absence and/or use of occasional leave (a few hours at a time) for therapy or other related appointments
  • Breaks — Breaks according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule, more frequent breaks and/or greater flexibility in scheduling breaks, provision of backup coverage during breaks, and telephone breaks during work hours to call professionals and others needed for support
  • Other policies — Beverages and/or food permitted at workstations, if necessary, to mitigate the side effects of medication, on-site job coaches

Employers are required to engage in the interactive process to determine whether an effective and reasonable accommodation is available for an employee. More information on the interactive process can be found in the HRX article Engaging in the ADA Interactive Process. Employers should enter the process with an open mind. A physically and mentally healthy employee benefits all.

FMLA and Mental Health

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows an eligible employee to take FMLA leave for their own serious health condition, or to care for a spouse, child, or parent because of a serious health condition, which can include a mental health condition.

A condition is considered serious under the FMLA if it requires inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. The DOL provides some examples:

  • Flare-ups of a mental health condition
  • Appointments with a physician to manage an anxiety condition
  • Attending a family counseling session for a spouse who is in an inpatient treatment program for substance abuse
  • Caring for a service member

Not all employees will initiate a request for FMLA when it is needed. Again, it’s important for HR to train district supervisors to recognize the signs of an employee who may need help. Clear communication, patience, and empathy can go a long way.

The DOL provides more information, including a fact sheet and an FAQ, on their webpage Mental Health and the FMLA.


Despite great efforts, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health. This stigma may prevent people in need from reaching out for help or guidance. Human resources professionals need to let go of any preconceived notions about mental illness and be open and understanding when communicating with employees about the topic.

STOPit Solutions offers mental health statistics and numerous resources in the recent article May is Mental Health Awareness Month: 88 Ways to Get Help, Information, and Support

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Sarah James
Sarah James
Communications Specialist

Sarah James joined HR Services in 2019. Prior to that, she worked at a Central Texas school district for 11 years. She is responsible for managing web content, HR Services articles, HRX newsletter, social media accounts, and marketing efforts.

James has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Concordia University Texas in Austin.

Email Sarah if you have a story idea for the HRX.

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