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Mental Health in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

A man suffering from mental health
By Chakeema Cruickshank, Staff Writer

Mental illness affects millions of people in the United States. For instance, nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffer from anxiety and another 7% experience a major depressive episode each year. Despite how common mental illnesses are, there is still stigma surrounding the topic. One stigma is that mental health conditions are a weakness, opposed to an illness. In addition, mental illnesses may not be taken as seriously as physical ailments because they are not as visible.

This can be especially true in the workplace. Dealing with mental health challenges in the workforce is difficult and it is often not discussed as much as needed. It is important for both employers and employees to discuss these challenges to ensure a healthy workforce and happier employees.

The pandemic has created many stressors and altered the lives of many in various ways. That being said, supporting mental health in the workplace is no longer just an option, it is instead a necessity. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important it is to care for one’s mental health and wellness. After all, mental health is just as important as physical health. Some ways to address mental health in the workforce include mental health support such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and other resources to assist employees that are struggling. Although mental illness may be a sensitive topic, it should not be considered a taboo one. Mental health awareness is essential for everyone.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in five people will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. Experts expect that number to increase due to the added stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, now more than ever it is important for employers to pay attention to mental health and discuss it in the workplace with both compassion.

Do’s and Don’ts of Managing Mental Health in the Workplace:

  • Docreate an open line of communication.
    • It is important that employees feel like they can communicate with their employers about what issues they may be facing. One way to do this is through regular check-ins with employees. These personal check-ins should be done in private and be confidential. This will let employees know they are supported and allow them the opportunity to speak candidly. ​​However, it is important to acknowledge that everyone experiences stress differently. Through regular check-ins, it will help build a relationship of trust and support between the employer and employee. This will help create a healthier and more inclusive work environment.
    • Employers should encourage employees to take PTO days or mental health days if the company offers them. It is important to take time away sometimes to recoup.
  • Do make reasonable adjustments and accommodations.
    • It is important for employers to provide reasonable accommodations to those facing mental health illnesses. Employers should be flexible and understanding when providing accommodations.
    • Some examples of reasonable adjustments may include, but are not limited to, flexible working hours, more frequent breaks, time off for support meetings or appointments (paid or unpaid), or changes to their working environment.
  • Do focus on the work environment and company culture.
    • It is important for employers to create a positive work environment and lead by example. Company culture is important for job candidates. Not only will ensuring an inclusive and healthy work environment help retain employees, but it will help attract new talent as well.

On the other hand, there are key things for employers to avoid when dealing with mental health in the workplace. This can include:


  • Don’t make assumptions.
    • Mental health conditions present themselves in different ways and no two people experience an illness the same way. Therefore, it is important for employers to avoid making any assumptions.
  • Don’t break anyone’s trust or confidence.
    • It is important to remember to keep employee’s information confidential and not disclose information with others without permission.

As seen, it is important for employers to discuss mental health challenges. However, at times it may be necessary to seek a fitness for duty examination by a mental health professional. Employers should only require these mental examinations if there is an objective reason to believe there is a clear safety concern. Only with objective reasoning is it appropriate for an employer to require these examinations.

Employers benefit from supporting mental health at work. Overall, supporting mental health is beneficial for both employees and employers. For example, depression and anxiety are among some of the common mental health conditions adults face. According to data from the American Psychiatric Association, employees dealing with unresolved depression experience a 35% reduction in productivity. This contributes to a loss to the U.S. economy of $210.5 billion a year.

People with mental illness are protected by federal and state law.

People dealing with mental health conditions and mental illness have protections under United States and New Jersey state law. On the federal level, there is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which was signed into law in 1990. This is a comprehensive piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. This provides protections in employment opportunities to public accommodations. This Act is an equal opportunity law.

To be protected under the ADA, one must have a disability that falls under the Act’s definition. It is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA does not specifically name all of the conditions that are covered, therefore, a range of disabilities are protected.

Similarly, New Jersey law has protections through the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). To qualify under the LAD, a mentally ill employee must show that they are suffering (1) from any mental, psychological or developmental disability, (2) resulting from an anatomical, psychological, physiological or neurological condition that either (a) prevents the normal exercise of any bodily or mental functions or (b) is demonstrable, medically or psychologically, by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques. Some of the common disorders protected under the LAD are depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and alcoholism. Employees seeking LAD protections are required to prove the illness through testimony from a medical expert or physician.

All in all, the more that employers and employees have a dialogue about mental health, the more the subject will become a normal part of the workplace conversation. Mental health awareness is vital and the more it is discussed the more we can combat stigmas surrounding mental health.

Staff Writer Chakeema Cruickshank is currently a first year at Rutgers Law School Camden. Prior to Rutgers Law, she worked for United States Senator Robert Menendez doing constituent relations and outreach for education, environment, and technology.

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