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Mental Health and the Workplace

At work you have to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages of being open about a mental health condition. Consider the potential negative impact on things like stigma from coworkers against your need for special accommodations, which are considered part of your civil rights. Stigma and stereotypes can also lead to discrimination. There are laws in place that protect you from discrimination and unfair practices on the job.

Your Rights: Protection Against Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees with disabilities. This law applies to private employers with more than 15 employees and state and local government employers. To qualify for protections under the ADA, the law states that you must be able to show:

  • That you have a disability that substantially impairs one or more major life activities. This means that you must be able to show that you have a condition that, if left untreated, interferes with daily or work activities such as concentrating, communicating or regulating emotions.
  • That you are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodations. In other words, you must be able to show that you can complete the important tasks or core duties of any job that you apply for.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act) is a federal law, similar to the ADA, that applies to any agency or group that receives federal funding, including public schools, universities and even some private schools. This law protects federal government workers and employees at any of these agencies from disability discrimination.

Many states also have laws that protect employees from discrimination in the workplace.

Requesting An Extended Leave Of Absence

Sometimes it’s necessary to take off multiple weeks in order to cope with a psychiatric crisis. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a law that allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the event of an illness or to help care for a family member who is sick. The FMLA permits you to take a leave of absence while preserving your job placement and benefits. To qualify for FMLA, you must work a minimum of 12 months for the same employer. The FMLA only applies to employers with more than 50 employees. To learn more about the FMLA, contact the Department of Labor.

Accommodations At Work

While you must be able to perform the essential tasks of your job, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations (changes made to company procedures/rules) that will help increase and maintain your job performance. Examples of accommodations include:

  • Flexible work schedules or start times
  • Reduced distractions or noise in the work area
  • Working from home or telecommuting.
  • Written directions and task lists
  • Regular written or verbal feedback
  • Flexible break schedule
  • Private, quiet space to rest during a break
  • Use of a job coach

How To Request Accommodations

If you do need an accommodation, the first step is to ask. It’s up to you to request an accommodation. Once you have submitted a request, an employer is required to sit down and talk with you about possible accommodations. Before you get started:

  • Ask your employer’s human resources (HR) personnel how to request accommodation. A request process may already be in place.
  • Decide what types of accommodations you need. Be specific. Be ready to explain how the accommodation will help you to perform your job.
  • Put your request in writing.
  • Talk with your treatment provider and ask if they can provide documentation. Your doctor can write a note, usually in the form of a letter, stating that you have mental illness and need accommodation. It may be helpful to share guidance on workplace accommodations with your provider.
  • Take detailed notes and keep a written record of any conversations you have with the employer. Keep copies of any emails you send and any forms you complete.
  • Negotiate. Be flexible and ready to discuss your options

Have You Experienced Discrimination?

If you feel like you have been discriminated against because you live with mental illness, there are a variety of legal options available:

  • Filing a Complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the federal government agency that enforces the ADA. If the employer is covered by the ADA, you can file a complaint with EEOC.
  • Federal Government Agency: Filing a Complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO). If the employer was a federal government agency, you must file a complaint with the agency’s EEO Office.
  • Filing a complaint with a State Fair Employment Practice Agency. Many states have laws that are similar to the ADA or the Rehab Act. These laws are enforced by the state’s Fair Employment Practice Agency (FEPA). If your state has one of these laws, you should file a complaint at your local FEPA.
  • If you are denied FMLA, contact the Department of Labor to file a complaint.

Community Voices: Insights and Resources

What To Do If You Think A Coworker Is Depressed (NAMI National blog)

Strategies For Living And Working Well With ADHD (NAMI National blog)

Living With Depression: How To Keep Working (NAMI National blog)

Mental Health In The Workplace: The Value Of Rest (NAMI National blog)

Information from the NAMI National website (updated October 2019)