Employee mental health rights

January 17, 2017

Employment News Disability Discrimination

Understanding Your Employee Mental Health Rights in the Workplace

Do you know your employee mental health rights at work? Protected under laws like the ADA, your rights shield against discrimination and warrant accommodations for conditions such as anxiety or depression. This guide breaks down those protections, clarifies the accommodations to which you’re entitled, and explains steps to take if your rights are violated—empowering you in the workplace.

Key Takeaways

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits workplace discrimination based on mental health conditions, ensuring protection for employees who qualify and requiring reasonable accommodations for them to perform essential job functions.
  • Employees with mental health conditions have various legal protections beyond the ADA, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for time off and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act for equitable health insurance benefits.
  • Employers should foster a supportive mental health environment in the workplace through policies like flexible work arrangements, mental health training for management, and by fostering open dialogue about mental health.

Navigating Mental Health Rights as an Employee

Being aware of your mental health rights as an employee is a crucial step in fostering a supportive workplace. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has established a significant framework for mental health rights in the workplace. This act prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace due to a mental health diagnosis or other disabilities. It safeguards employees from being unfairly fired, refused for hire, or denied promotions solely based on their disability, provided they can perform the essential functions of the job.

Simply put, the ADA provides protection if you have a mental health condition that qualifies as a disability. Importantly, the law restricts employers from delving into your mental health beyond what is permitted. Moreover, the ADA extends its protection to individuals associated with a person with a disability, not just the individual’s own condition. So, while you don’t always have to disclose your mental health diagnosis to employers, there are specific situations where exceptions may apply.

Recognizing Mental Health Conditions Under the ADA

The ADA defines a mental impairment as a psychological disorder or mental illness, which includes mental health disorders that impact major life activities. These activities encompass essential functions such as thinking, learning, and concentrating. Which mental health conditions, then, are recognized under the ADA? Well, it includes a broad spectrum of psychiatric disorders, ranging from:

  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • major depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • personality disorders
  • intellectual and learning disabilities

Even intellectual and learning disabilities are encompassed within the ADA’s definition of physical or mental impairment.

It’s vital to realize that the ADA doesn’t base its recognition of a psychiatric disability purely on diagnosis. Instead, it takes into account the significance of the impairment’s impact on life activities. The conditions qualifying as psychiatric disabilities under the ADA don’t need to be permanent or severe, as long as they are ‘substantially limiting’. This broad interpretation of disability emphasizes the inclusion of more individuals with psychiatric disabilities.

Reasonable Accommodations Explained

You might ask, what exactly does a reasonable accommodation entail? Basically, job modifications or changes are made to the work environment to help individuals perform their essential job functions. Such modifications are imperative for enabling employees to perform their roles effectively. These accommodations for psychiatric disabilities might include:

  • strategies to manage concentration issues
  • flexible work arrangements like working from home
  • adjustments to work schedules such as part-time hours
  • modifications to the work area to reduce distractions

The ADA mandates that employers provide these accommodations not just for the mental disability itself, but for any condition causing a limitation in a major life activity, unless it causes significant difficulty or expense to the employer. This means that employers are legally obliged to accommodate your needs, within reason, to ensure a supportive and productive work atmosphere.

The Interplay Between Mental Health and Essential Job Functions

The fundamental job duties of the employment position held or desired by an individual with a disability are referred to as essential job functions. The identification of these functions is based on the employer’s judgment and existing job descriptions. The ADA mandates that employers must consider the impact of a mental disability on an employee’s ability to perform these essential functions and provide necessary accommodations. This means that your employer must take into account your mental health condition when assessing your ability to perform your job and provide the necessary support to enable you to do so effectively.

It’s important to note, though, employers are not obliged to provide the specific accommodation requested by the employee. Instead, employers and employees are required to engage in an interactive process to identify the most appropriate accommodation for performing essential job tasks. This could include adjusted management practices, such as providing more structured supervision and task reminders for employees with concentration issues or providing written emails that clearly outline assignments and deadlines for employees with difficulty remembering oral instructions.

Mental Health and Employment Discrimination Protections

Beyond the rights provided by the ADA, there exists an array of additional protections against discrimination and harassment based on mental health conditions. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 advises a broad interpretation of disabilities to include extensive conditions, emphasizing inclusion of more individuals with psychiatric disabilities. This act provides robust protections against unfair job termination or rejection for a position, and harassment based on mental health conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in the workplace.

Many state laws also provide rights similar to or better than those provided by the ADA. For example, the Minnesota Human Rights Act provides similar protections as the ADA but provides additional enforcement procedures and greater monetary damages if an employer violates the law. Other states have similar laws that increase the available remedies.

Moreover, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act ensures that health insurance plans cannot impose harsher limitations on mental health or substance use benefits than on medical or surgical benefits.

The Role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) serves a crucial function in ensuring the respect of rights of people with mental health conditions in the workplace. The EEOC enforces laws that prevent discrimination against people with mental health conditions in the workplace, ensuring that your rights are not just theoretical but are actively upheld.

If you believe your rights have been violated, the EEOC is there to assist you. They conduct investigations into allegations of discrimination, providing valuable support during what can be a difficult process. This commitment to upholding mental health rights in the workplace ensures a fair and supportive environment for all employees.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Mental Health

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is another important piece of legislation in the mental health rights puzzle. The FMLA acknowledges mental illness as potentially a serious health condition, permitting eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. This means that if you or a family member has a serious health condition, including mental health conditions, you are entitled to take a leave of absence while ensuring your job security.

The FMLA even extends this provision to parents of adult children with serious mental health conditions, covering conditions like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. However, it’s important to remember that while a leave of absence may be necessary as an accommodation for a psychiatric disability, it should be the last resort with the goal of keeping the employee engaged in their job as much as possible.

Workplace Stress and Employees’ Rights

Illustration of a supportive workplace environment

Recognizing the importance of mental health in the workplace is vital to maintain a safe and healthy work environment, especially amidst changing regulations and unforeseen scenarios. With employers facing average costs of $15,000 annually related to healthcare, lost productivity, and turnover due to mental distress among employees, it’s clear that workplace stress is not just a personal issue, but a business one too.

It’s the employer’s responsibility to support team members with work-related illnesses, including physical and emotional illnesses, and to take proactive measures to prevent such illnesses. This includes creating policies that prevent:

  • discrimination
  • workplace violence
  • bullying
  • harassment in the workplace

As mental health issues such as depression can significantly impair job performance, reducing productivity by as much as 11.5 days every three months, it’s clear that maintaining a psychologically healthy work environment is a necessity, not a luxury. Addressing these issues can help to excuse poor job performance and improve overall productivity, ultimately preventing poor job performance in the long run.

Identifying Undue Hardship and Direct Threat

Despite the requirement for employers to provide reasonable accommodations, certain exceptions may render this impracticable. One such exception is the concept of undue hardship. This is defined as significant difficulty or expense incurred by the employer when providing accommodations. For instance, accommodations that are unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or those that fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business, are considered undue hardships.

However, the determination of undue hardship is a case-by-case process that takes into account the employer’s resources and the cost or difficulty of the accommodation. The employer has the right to choose among several reasonable accommodations and may opt for the less expensive or less burdensome option that is still effective. In fact, while the preference of the employee with a disability should be considered, the employer ultimately has discretion in selecting between effective accommodations.

Strategies for Requesting Mental Health Accommodations

Now, with an understanding of what reasonable accommodations entail and when they may be necessary, let’s examine the process of requesting them. To begin with, employees should start the process by speaking with their employer and providing input on their needs. The ADA requires that accommodations be tailored to the specific needs of the individual, considering factors like personal strengths, the work environment, and job duties.

Key to remember is that, while employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations, they also have resources available to them. For instance, they can utilize resources such as the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for guidance on mental health accommodation solutions to support their employees.

Documenting Your Needs: Medical Documentation and Written Work Agreements

Upon requesting a mental health accommodation, you may be required to provide documentation that verifies your disability and the necessity for accommodation. This documentation should be limited to information necessary to establish that you have an ADA disability and require a reasonable accommodation. Your healthcare provider should focus on the nature of the condition, your functional limitations without treatment, and how the accommodation would mitigate these limitations.

In addition to medical documentation, written work agreements can proactively address potential problems. These agreements may include:

  • Agreed-upon accommodations
  • Performance standards
  • Goals
  • Responsibilities

It’s crucial for you to educate yourself on your rights to mental health accommodations and to ensure your requests for such accommodations are formally documented.

Communication is Key: Discussing Workplace Issues and Needs

Effective communication plays a significant role in navigating mental health accommodations. Once an employer is made aware of a disability and the employee’s need for assistance, they are legally required to engage in a dialogue about possible accommodations. The EEOC offers guidance on how employees can request reasonable accommodations for mental health conditions.

An interactive process should be initiated by the employer to find an appropriate accommodation, and any unreasonable delay can constitute a violation of ADA regulations. Regularly scheduled meetings with employers can assist employees in discussing workplace issues and maintaining productivity. It’s crucial for employees seeking accommodations to have transparent and open communication regarding performance and work expectations with supervisors.

Enhancing Mental Health Support at Work

Although it’s important to understand your rights and the legal protections in place, fostering a supportive environment for mental health at the workplace is equally crucial. Employers can create a culture of openness around mental health by:

  • Encouraging conversations
  • Sharing experiences
  • Normalizing seeking help
  • Reducing stigma

Implementing flexible workplace policies that accommodate employees’ needs and investing in mental health training for management are also key strategies to enhance mental health support at work.

Other strategies include:

  • Visible senior leader support
  • Resource allocation
  • Employee-led mental health initiatives like Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
  • Peer listening programs

These strategies are crucial for the success of mental health support at work.

Employers should also create an environment where employees feel safe to discuss mental health issues, which can lead to better support and accommodations.

Implementing Flexible Workplace Policies

Flexible workplace policies, such as:

  • Quiet office space
  • Modified work schedules
  • Job sharing
  • Part-time work

Employers can cater to employees’ mental health needs by proactively offering accommodations like on site job coaches, remote job coaching, and making office computers accessible from remote locations for employees with mental health conditions.

Giving employees a say in their work schedules can enable them to better manage mental health issues and achieve a healthier work-life balance. Regularly reviewing and adapting flexible workplace policies is crucial to ensure they match current employee needs and remain supportive.

Investing in Mental Health Training for Management

It’s vital to train managers on handling mental health issues in their teams, both reactively and proactively, to reduce stigma and provide effective support to employees. Leadership training on mental health awareness and sensitivity is essential in promoting a positive workplace mental health culture and providing support to employees.

Ensuring that mental health training for managers includes current topics like hybrid working anxiety and return-to-office plans is crucial for addressing contemporary workplace challenges. Managerial training programs should include education on recognizing the early signs of mental distress and the appropriate steps to support affected employees.

Mental Health Days and Self-Care

Beyond workplace accommodations and legal protections, mental health days and self-care practices prove to be key in managing stress, averting burnout, and upholding overall well-being.Taking mental health days can help you manage stress and burnout, reduce fatigue, and prevent mental distress from becoming unbearable. Companies that offer mental health days may experience benefits such as increased employee morale and productivity, reduced healthcare costs, higher staff retention, and an enhanced reputation. Employees may use their PTO or vacation days to take a mental health day. In some jurisdictions, employees may be able to use their sick leave for mental health days as well.

Legally, employees with mental health conditions may be entitled to certain accommodations, such as sick leave for mental health reasons, the use of vacation time flexibly, and additional unpaid leave for treatment.


In conclusion, understanding your mental health rights in the workplace is not just about knowing the legal protections in place, but also about fostering a supportive and inclusive work environment. From the ADA’s recognition of mental health conditions to the FMLA’s provision for mental health leaves, there are numerous legal protections in place to ensure a fair and safe workplace. However, it’s crucial to remember that these rights are not just theoretical – they are actively enforced by bodies like the EEOC.

Moreover, employers and employees alike have a role to play in creating a supportive work environment. From implementing flexible workplace policies and mental health training for management to encouraging open communication and providing mental health days, there are numerous strategies that can be employed to enhance mental health support at work. Ultimately, promoting mental health in the workplace requires a collective effort – one that not only acknowledges mental health issues but actively works towards supporting those affected by them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What to do if my job is affecting my mental health?

If your job is affecting your mental health, consider speaking with a supervisor for changes, seeking support through employee assistance programs, and exploring options such as leaving the job or taking a mental health leave of absence. It’s important to prioritize your mental well-being and consider the long-term impact on your health.

What mental health conditions are recognized under the ADA?

The ADA recognizes a broad spectrum of psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and personality disorders. These conditions are protected under the ADA to ensure equal rights and opportunities for individuals with mental health disorders.

What constitutes a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is a modification that allows an individual to perform essential job functions. It can be a change to the job or work environment.

What are some strategies for enhancing mental health support at work?

To enhance mental health support at work, employers can create a culture of openness, implement flexible workplace policies, invest in mental health training for management, and offer mental health days for their employees. These strategies can greatly benefit the mental well-being of the workforce.

Can I be fired because I have a mental health condition?

No. Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee with a mental health condition. This includes, but is not limited to, failing to hire, harassing or terminating an employee due to a mental or physical health condition. However, an employer may assess whether the employee is able to do the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable workplace accommodation, or whether the health condition poses a significant safety risk to the employee or to others.

Do I need to disclose a mental health condition?

In general, an employee may keep their health condition private. However, the employee should be prepared to discuss the condition when seeking a reasonable accommodation in the workplace or to determine eligibility for benefits and rights under other laws, including a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Only under limited circumstances may an employer ask about a medical condition, including:

  • When the employee asks for a workplace accommodation.
  • After a job offer is made, but before employment begins, so long as all employees seeking the same position are asked the same questions.
  • On the job, when there is evidence the employee is unable to perform the job or may pose a safety risk due to the health condition.

In all instances, the employer must keep the employee’s medical information confidential and must not discriminate or retaliate against the employee.

How do I request an accommodation?

An employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee or a job applicant with a mental health condition, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship to the employer–­that is, that it would require significant difficulty or expense. A reasonable accommodation may include:

  • Modified break or work schedules (e.g. to accommodate medical appointments);
  • Reassignment to a vacant position;
  • Specific shift assignments; or
  • Quiet office space or devices that help create a quiet work environment.

To seek an accommodation, the employee should tell a supervisor or HR manager (or consult their employee handbook for the appropriate person and procedure) of their need for a change in the workplace because of medical condition. In turn, the employer must work with the employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is possible and the appropriate accommodation. See also this EEOC publication for more information about mental health discrimination and employee rights.)

Protect Your Rights Against Disability and Mental Health Discrimination
If you believe you have suffered discrimination because of a mental health or physical health condition, our disability discrimination lawyers want to hear from you. Wanta Thome is dedicated to protecting employee rights of employees with disabilities. Contact us at 612-252-3570 or click here click here for a free initial consultation.