Business

Pandemic has 1 in 4 adults mentally distressed. This is how employers can help.

What are your responsibilities as an employer?

The pandemic has created a perfect storm for mental health issues - your employees are dealing with social isolation, an
The pandemic has created a perfect storm for mental health issues — your employees are dealing with social isolation, anxiety about their or their family members’ health, possible job loss, and overall economic problems. (Lola Gomez / American-Statesman)

By now, all employers are familiar with COVID-19’s physical threat. But the mental aspects of the pandemic are only beginning to surface.

A recent preliminary study of the pandemic by San Diego State and Florida State University indicates one in four U.S. adults in April met the criteria that psychologists use to diagnose serious mental distress and illness.

Roughly 70 percent of Americans experienced moderate to severe mental distress, which is triple the rate from several years ago.

The pandemic has created a perfect storm for mental health issues — your employees are dealing with social isolation, anxiety about their or their family members’ health, possible job loss, and overall economic problems.

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.

Experts are warning that a potential second shutdown could exacerbate these negative mental health effects.

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.

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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 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, 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

• Scheduling — part-time work hours

• Leave — flexible use of leave for therapy and other related appointments

• Breaks — These may be according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule

• Modification or removal of non-essential job duties, or additional training.

The courts typically perform a factual analysis on what is “reasonable.”

In one case, a police officer with anxiety and depression requested a permanent transfer from patrol duties. He 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.”

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The court agreed the employer reasonably could 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.

The employer also has no duty to bump someone from a position to accommodate the disabled employee — unless there is a union or collective bargaining agreement that requires it. And even, then, the transfer must happen according to the terms of the CBA.

In another case, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder was working for state government on a team project. The employer moved the team’s office to the basement of a building.

Once 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.

So what is the moral of these cases?

The 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 implement an accommodation that is too expensive or requires a second person to assist, for example.

Also, the courts want some reassurance an employee can continue performing his or her essential job functions with the accommodation. If not, it is not a “reasonable” accommodation.

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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 a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.

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