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Mental health in the workplace
By Wilford H. Stone
May. 29, 2022 6:15 am
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s purported infectious disease expert, has stated that the United States is moving out of an acute pandemic phase, namely because the United States does not have 900,000 new infections a day and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and deaths.
Now, our country is moving into a “different phase” of the pandemic.
Notwithstanding the continued controversies over masking and vaccine mandates, as well as ever-changing coronavirus guidance regarding the virus’ physical threats, the pandemic’s mental impacts continue.
A March 2022 scientific brief released by the World Health Organization stated that during the pandemic’s first year, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent. The brief also found that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the mental health of young people and women, and that these groups have been more severely affected than men.
This is consistent with a preliminary study of the pandemic by two universities — San Diego State and Florida State — which indicates that one in four U.S. adults in April, 2020 — 25 percent — met the criteria that psychologists use to diagnose serious mental distress and illness.
The pandemic has created a perfect storm for mental health issues — your employees are dealing with social isolation and/or return to work; fear of infection, or their family members’ infection; loss of friends and family through illness; possible job loss or restructuring; and financial worries.
Then, throw in other disrupters — the Ukraine war, Naomi Judd’s and others’ death by suicide; and a leaked “draft opinion” indicating a landmark decision establishing a right to an abortion may be reversed this year.
Feelings of depression, anxiety and poor sleep patterns mean that while people are working at their jobs, they often are not really at their best.
What are your duties as an Iowa employer to a worker with anxiety or depression?
Under state and federal law, employers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities — including mental disabilities.
A “mental disability” has been broadly defined by the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to include many forms of anxiety and depression, among other mental health conditions.
When an employer is informed of or becomes aware of an employee’s mental or physical disability, and an employee seeks an “accommodation” to allow them to perform their essential job functions, the employer has the duty to engage in a frank but confidential discussion about the issues the employee faces and how might the employer reasonably accommodate the employee on the job.
This is called the “interactive process” and will involve a discussion with the employee about what may or may not be economical or feasible.
But remember, not all employees with disabilities request or require accommodations to perform their essential job functions.
In the case of a physical disability, this is fairly easy. If an employee is hearing impaired, for example, the employer likely will need to provide certain technologies to assist the employee in doing her job.
The analysis can be far more complicated for mental disabilities.
Here is the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of examples of accommodations that have helped employees with psychiatric disabilities to more effectively perform their jobs:
- Flexible workplace — working from home, for example
- Modified scheduling — coming to work later after taking medication or part-time work hours, for example
- Leave — flexible use of leave for therapy and other related appointments
- Breaks — These may be according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule.
The courts will perform a factual analysis on what is “reasonable.” It is dependent on factors such as the size of a workforce, the number of people performing the same job functions, the business’ economics and like.
An Iowa court and also will find that an employee’s request for accommodations triggers the interactive process. So an employer who interacts extensively with the employee to help her meet the job’s expectations always will defeat a failure to accommodate lawsuit.
In one case, a police officer with anxiety and depression requested a permanent transfer from patrol duties and asked for a position in the department’s booking or the canine units. The court agreed that it was reasonable to keep him away from patrol duties to accommodate his mental issues, but upheld the employer’s decision to instead place him in the police department’s training unit.
Remember, the accommodation process is “interactive.” The court agreed the employer could reasonably accommodate the officer’s request to forego patrol duties, but it did not require the employer to create the exact position envisioned by the officer.
In another case, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder was working for a state government on a team project. The employer moved the team's office to the basement of a building.
After the move occurred, the veteran realized the noises in the basement were triggering memories of explosions and causing flare ups of his PTSD.
The employer did not want to move the entire team again, but was able to find an office on the first floor of the same building for the veteran. The rest of the team remained in the basement, but team meetings were held upstairs.
What is the moral of these cases? Iowa courts will require employers to go to some lengths to consider all reasonable options to permit employees with mental disabilities to keep working. But reasonableness is the key.
The courts won’t require an employer to breach a collective bargaining agreement, implement an accommodation that is too expensive or that requires a second person to assist, for example.
Also, Iowa courts want some reassurance that an employee can continue performing his or her essential job functions with the accommodation. If not, it is not a “reasonable” accommodation.
Finally, once the accommodation is in place, the employer should continue to meet with the employee to evaluate its effectiveness and make any modifications. And it is important that an employer document each step of the interactive and accommodation process and the reasons for each decision.
Wilford H. Stone is lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.