Workplace Accommodations: Mental Illness is No Different Than Physical Illness

When it comes to mental health issues, many employers have an inherent bias. If they cannot see, feel or touch a medical issue or disability, some are skeptical it exists. After all, many of us have experienced a temporary period of depression following a job loss, extended illness, divorce, or loss of a loved one. So when does it rise to the level of an ongoing mental health condition?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experience mental illness in a given year. Of greater concern is the approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4 %—who experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities, including functioning in the workplace. While this is a legitimate concern for employers, employers need to be mindful to treat mental illness as they would any other medical condition.

Often those with mental illness need accommodations that, for the most part, can be fairly easy for an employer to provide. For instance, an employee with depression may have difficulty starting their day. They may tell an employer that it is difficult for them to get to work consistently at 8 AM, but could reliably be at work by 9 AM. If it does not present an undue hardship the employer must providethe accommodation.

Employers do have a right, however, to ask for documentation of an employee’s mental illness, such as a letter from a primary care doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor. Employers cannot ask for specifics, but they can ask these health care providers to document that the employee has a medical condition which qualifies as a disability. They can also ask that the documentation come from a professional directly involved in the employee’s treatment, as opposed to a letter from a chiropractor or acupuncturist. This information should be sufficient for the employer to determine whether the disability falls under the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, or California’s statute, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.