The Balancing Act: Bridging Mental Health and Employment Law Compliance

In the intricate dance between mental health and the workplace, there’s a partner often overlooked but crucial for a harmonious routineemployment law.  

In recent years, conversations around mental health have gained significant momentum, emphasizing the importance of holistic well-being in both personal and professional realms. While strides have been made in recognizing mental health as a crucial component of overall wellness, many individuals still face challenges in accessing appropriate accommodations and support in the workplace. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) play pivotal roles in safeguarding the rights of individuals grappling with mental health conditions within the workplace. 

FMLA  

While FMLA was initially associated with physical health concerns, its application to mental health issues has become increasingly recognized and can bridge the gap between mental health needs and employment rights. 

In May 2022, the US DOL issued a fact sheet related to an employee’s ability to use FMLA for their own or a family member’s mental health condition. Eligible employees can take leave to seek treatment, attend therapy sessions, or address any mental health crisis without fear of losing their job. Moreover, FMLA can be used for certain family members who may require care or support due to mental health conditions.  

Navigating the FMLA process can pose unique challenges for employees and employers alike. For employers, managing the intermittent nature of mental health issues like anxiety or depression requires tracking leave usage while maintaining work continuity. For employees, navigating the FMLA process, including eligibility requirements and documentation, can be complex and overwhelming particularly for individuals already grappling with mental health issues.  

To address these challenges, it’s essential for employers to foster a culture of openness and support surrounding mental health. This includes implementing clear and accessible FMLA policies, providing education and training for managers and employees, and actively promoting mental wellness initiatives. 

ADA 

Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can significantly impact an individual’s ability to effectively perform their job duties.  

If an employee needs accommodation due to their mental health, employers are required to engage in an interactive process with employees to determine suitable accommodations tailored to the employee’s individual needs. Reasonable accommodations may include flexible work arrangements, modified job duties, or adjustments to the work environment to alleviate stressors.  

Despite the legal protections afforded by the ADA, stigma surrounding mental health persists leading to employee reluctance to seek accommodations. Additionally, employer misconceptions, biases, and assumptions about mental health can impede the interactive process. Addressing these barriers requires ongoing efforts to promote awareness, education, and destigmatization of mental health conditions within workplaces. 

Interaction of ADA and FMLA 

The previously mentioned DOL Fact Sheet states that some mental health conditions may satisfy both the definition of “serious health condition” (FMLA) and the definition of “disability” (ADA) even though the statutory tests are different. This means employees may use FMLA leave for mental health reasons and request an ADA accommodation upon their return to work. 

The EEOC has also issued enforcement guidance that a leave of absence can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA whether the employee is eligible for FMLA, ineligible for FMLA, or after exhaustion of their FMLA entitlement. In instances where an employee is covered by both laws, the DOL requires that employers provide leave under whichever law provides the greater rights and benefits to the employee. 

The intersection of mental health issues and employment law highlights the evolving landscape of workplace rights and responsibilities. By recognizing the importance of mental health support and leveraging the protections afforded by the FMLA and ADA, businesses not only comply with legal requirements but also foster a more inclusive and resilient workforce. 

By fostering awareness, eliminating stigma, and upholding legal mandates, we can create a more inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their mental health status. 

Written by Karol Dixon, HR Advisor.

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