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February 14, 2020

More millennial workers want accommodations for mental health. Are employers ready?

Daily Briefing

    As the number of young workers with mental health conditions increases, employers are facing a growing number of requests for mental health-related disability accommodations, and they're not always prepared to handle them, Lauren Weber reports for the Wall Street Journal.

    Related: Your behavioral health access playbook

    More young employees have mental health conditions

    Adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have the highest prevalence of serious mental health conditions across age groups in the workforce, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Among that age group, the prevalence of serious mental health conditions is 7.5%, compared with 5.6% among adults ages 25 to 49 and 2.7% among adults over 50, the data shows.

    Many of those individuals are starting the shift from a school to a work environment, and they are finding that the legal standards for accommodations they've come to expect—such as receiving additional time on tests or assignments—are different in the workforce, Weber reports.

    While federal law requires employers to offer "reasonable accommodations" for mental health conditions, employers can deny those requests if they can prove that they would create an "undue hardship" due to high cost, a decrease in productivity, or a negative impact on the organization in some other way.

    According Domenique Camacho Moran, head of the labor and employment practice at Farrell Fritz, "Historically, undue hardships focused on money." For instance, an employer might get a request for an expensive chair from an employee with back issues. But now, the increase in requests for mental health accommodations makes it "less about a specific product and much more about a change in the work itself: the way it's done, when it's done, where it's done," Camacho Moran said.

    There's also a lot of ambiguity in the law, and symptoms related to mental health conditions that are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act can vary from person to person, Weber reports.

    Jen Rubin, a partner with the management-side law firm Mintz, said, "When an employee shows up with their leg in a cast, you know what the accommodations are." She added, "When someone comes in and says, 'I have severe anxiety' or 'I have stress,' it's much harder."

    Employers face more mental health-related discrimination complaints

    The result, Weber reports, has been an increase in employee discrimination claims related to mental health conditions.  

    For example, 371 charges citing discrimination related to anxiety disorders were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2019, compared with 65 charges in 2006. The number of cases citing post-traumatic stress disorder also increased during that time frame from 35 to 208 cases.

    In one case, EEOC sued trucking company Transport America for allegedly charging a driver a fee to keep his service animal, which was meant to help with his anxiety, in his vehicle. Transport America settled the case for $22,500. The company declined to comment to the Journal on the case.

    Sharon Rennert, a senior attorney adviser at the EEOC said, "Employers who fall back on fears or stereotypes could end up violating the ADA."

    That's not to say every accommodation must be granted. Weber offers the example of a call center employee who is expected to answer at least 10 calls per hour but submits an accommodation request saying they can't answer more than five calls because of their anxiety.  

    "In that circumstance, the employer would have legitimate reason to say no," Rennert said.

    But fear of being stigmatized or penalized for making a request can also hurt workers by keeping them from asking for the accommodation, Weber reports. If their work begins to decline because of it, this can create problems for the employee as well as the employer's bottom line, Camacho Moran said.

    "You can end up in a scenario where someone is about to get fired and it turns out there was a really simple fix and it never came up," she said.

    How do employers move forward?

    So, how do employers move forward?

    The first step, according to legal experts, is to recognize that there is no "one-size-fits-all accommodation for mental health conditions," Weber writes. The key is to work with employees to develop accommodations that will help the employee excel at work with their mental health condition and meet business goals. According to Weber, the process should be interactive.

    What the law seeks to do, according to Rubin, is promote a negotiation (Weber, Wall Street Journal, 2/12).

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