Mental Health Issues in the Workplace
Workplace violence. Immigration. PTSD. Gun Control. Two Americas. All of these current stressors in society have forced employers to pay increasing attention to mental health issues in the workplace. It is no surprise then that the EEOC issued guidance and FAQs in December 2016 regarding “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.” Although there was scant clarification and certainly no bright-line rules for employers, the EEOC did reiterate that certain reasonable accommodations can be available for individuals with mental health issues, including altered break and work schedules, quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g. written versus verbal instructions), specific shift assignments and permission to work from home.
However, courts are not necessarily buying into EEOC recommendations. For example, in January 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for an employer who denied some of these same reasonable accommodations to a call center employee. In Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, Inc. (6th Cir. 1/27/17), the employee, who suffered from depression and anxiety attacks, requested a flexible start time, breaks throughout the day and an 8 week leave of absence, but was denied these accommodations and terminated. What were the deciding factors? What did this employer do strategically to avoid liability? As we often preach, the Williams Court stressed the importance of having documentation that predates the litigation and giving an employee multiple opportunities to resolve his or her issues. Thus, employers can and should draft attendance polices and job descriptions that provide, if applicable, that timely arrival to work, regular, reliable attendance, and working from the office are essential functions of the job.
Further, although it can be extremely frustrating for front-line human resource professionals who deal with serial abusers of FMLA and ADA policies, no bright-line rule or policy will immunize an employer from liability. Employers should contact counsel when these issues are implicated and termination is contemplated. Moreover, employers should be prepared to extend deadlines when warranted and give the employee leeway to provide documentation—even if the employee is adept at communicating some, but not all, of the necessary information to allow the employer to make an informed employment decision. A charitable view toward resolving the situation favorably for the employee would be highlighted and evaluated in any ensuing litigation.
In 2017, we will no doubt continue to see shifting national priorities and policy changes; however, with the issues currently trending in our culture, employers are certain to face more, not less, mental health issues in the workplace.
For more information, contact Kelly Boggs Lape
or a member of our Labor, Employment and Immigration group
This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.