HR’s Role Regarding Employees’ Mental Health

Human Resources (HR) professionals play a major role in any organization, often tasked with carrying out various tasks that do not fit naturally fit within any other department. HR professionals are in a powerful position to help change attitudes and offer a good support system. Often the most significant role HR plays within an organization is counseling and helping employees and teams work through problems in order to maintain high rates of productivity

HR professionals are not trained counselors or psychologists.  However, the core function of employee relations sometimes encompasses helping employees through personal and work challenges, including mental health issues, that can negatively affect employees work, attendance, and overall happiness.  Companies that take steps to promote mental health and to support people with mental disorders are more likely to enjoy reduced absenteeism rates, increase productivity, and benefit from associated economic gains.  How can your company’s HR function better assist with mental health issues?

Mental Health Issues Clearly Impact the Workplace

Your employees’ mental and emotional well-being has serious impacts not only on the employees affected by it, but also on their co-workers and the business as a whole. Unfortunately, mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety often persist undetected for months or years.   Making matters worse, the stigma attached to having a psychiatric or emotional disorder is such that employees may be reluctant to seek treatment — especially in the current pandemic climate — out of fear that they might jeopardize their jobs. At the same time, managers may want to help but are not sure how to do so effectively…and legally.  Workers can feel emotionally drained, have trouble concentrating, or lose interest in day-to-day work assignments which in turn often leads to a decline in performance.

It is important for managers and human resources professionals to understand how to act responsibly regarding this growing issue.   Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression and anxiety and are estimated to cost to the global economy $1 trillion USD per year in lost productivity.  Negative work environments, harassment and bullying at work are commonly reported problems. 

A negative work environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of drugs or alcohol, absenteeism, and decreased productivity.  Issues can be exacerbated due to inadequate health and safety policies, poor communication and management practices, limited participation in decision-making, inflexible working hours, and unclear tasks or organizational objectives.

When an Employee Approaches You for Help

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), as enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), should govern the interaction between the manager, human resources and employee.  The ADA (along with some states’ disability discrimination laws) is an employee’s primary protection against workplace harassment and discrimination due to a disability. Navigating the ADA process with an employee can be complicated.  Here are some parameters to keep in mind:

  • The ADA covers employers with fifteen (15) or more employees and prohibits workplace discrimination (e.g., firing, rejecting for a job or promotion, or forcing employees to take leave) and harassment based on an employee’s disability, including many mental health conditions. 
  • A disability can be any of the following:
  • having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, which include basic tasks such as lifting, walking, eating, caring for oneself, regulating emotions, thinking, concentrating, sleeping, and communicating with others;
  • having a record of such an impairment; or
  • or being regarded as having such an impairment.
  • If an employee has an ADA-recognized disability, the employee must still be able to perform the “essential functions” of their job, and they cannot pose a substantial threat to themselves or their co-workers.
  • To exercise their rights under the ADA, the employee must usually request reasonable accommodations (which the company can request in writing) and must share enough medical information to allow the company to make a responsible assessment of the accommodation request.
  • In most situations, the employee can keep their condition private, limiting their medical information to those at the employer who “need to know” the information.
  • An employer is only allowed to ask medical questions (including questions about mental health) in four situations:
    • When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation;
    • After a job offer is made, but before employment begins, if everyone entering the same job category is asked the same questions;
    • When engaging in affirmative action planning regarding people with disabilities (such as an employer tracking the disability status of its applicant pool in order to assess its recruitment and hiring efforts, or a public sector employer considering whether special hiring rules may apply), to which employees may choose whether to respond; and
    • On the job, when there is objective evidence that a medical condition is preventing an employee from doing their job or that the employee poses a safety risk because of the condition.
  • The employer must keep the medical information confidential and limit access by company officials to those with a “need to know.”
  • The employer must take reasonable steps to accommodate the employee’s disability, but does not have to accept the employee’s requested accommodation and may suggest other accommodations that are “reasonable.” Employers may refuse to provide any accommodation if any accommodations would cause a substantial hardship to the company.
  • The employer may ask the employee’s health care provider whether particular accommodations would meet the employee’s needs.
  • A reasonable accommodation need not always be dramatic, but may include modest changes in the way things are normally done at work including altered break and work schedules, quiet office space, or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods, or permission to work from home.

Proactive Steps Company’s Should Take Now 

While employers cannot control their employees’ personal lives outside the workplace, their personal lives can negatively impact their work.  Also, the workplace environment and culture greatly affect an employee’s mood, well-being, and mental health.  When companies accept that their employees’ mental health matters and work to assist their employees in finding resources that can help, more workers will feel empowered to speak up about their troubles and find productive solutions, rather than continuing to suffer, which is often accompanied by poor job performance.  But waiting for employees to speak up is not the first step.  Employers should be proactive in setting a process in place now to educate and assist employees so that they know there are resources available to them should they need help.  Some ideas include the following:

  • Educate employees on the mental health resources offered by the company which can include confidential Employee Assistance Plans (EAP’s) through which employees can have telephone consultations and receive referrals to additional resources.
  • Give employees opportunities to take part in decision making about mental health resources in the workplace and accommodations/solutions that will work best for them.
  • Provide human resources staff with emotional intelligence training so they are better able to recognize the symptoms of mental health issues and how to discretely encourage employees to seek help.
  • Make mental health self-assessment tools available to all employee.
  • Offer free or subsidized clinical screenings for depression from a qualified mental health professional.
  • Create and maintain dedicated, quiet spaces for relaxation activities.
  • Either host in-house or provide employees access to seminars and meetings that discuss mental health issues in the workplace.

C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.