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Mental Health Needs Are Often Inseparable from Work

Legal guidance can best ensure treatment doesn’t jeopardize career success.

More than ever, our society has sought to destigmatize mental illness, promoting awareness of mental health issues and the need for high-quality treatment. Our social media networks brim with stories from individuals who battled depression, survived suicide attempts, or simply made it through difficult life chapters. Such anecdotes allow for solidarity with others, offer messages of affirmation, and promote self-care. Yet they rarely tackle the practical issue of how to take concrete steps to improve mental health while navigating the realities of work.

Employers today demand a great deal from their employees. Fewer and fewer of us work 9 to 5 jobs or enjoy regular breaks. We work more hours, have longer commutes, and are expected to be available and connected for all manner of responsibilities, with little ability to establish boundaries between the hours spent at work or at home. Is it any wonder that rates of anxiety and other mental health issues are trending upward?

Given the time we all spend at our jobs and the spillover between our professional and private lives, it’s not unusual for work responsibilities to contribute to mental health challenges or to make it difficult to find solutions. Crucially, conditions can also impact our ability to perform on the job, jeopardizing our professional success. Ultimately, many people in such scenarios consider whether to discuss their challenges with their employers. And while the law protects those with mental health issues from workplace harassment and discrimination, individuals planning these conversations should still proceed with caution and understand a few important realities.

For example:

  • Employees with mental health conditions that impact their job performance often have a legal right to an accommodation. However, the law specifies these as "reasonable" accommodations, meaning reasonable for the employer. This is a highly subjective distinction. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides examples of possible, reasonable accommodations, including altered work schedules (to accommodate therapy appointments), quiet office spaces, changes in supervisory methods, specific shift assignments, and permission to work from home. These are highly dependent on the nature of one’s job. It is unlikely that a school teacher will be offered the ability to telecommute, though that option might be open to an office worker. Employees seeking accommodations should think carefully about what might be reasonable, while still improving their ability to work, and be specific when they make requests. This approach is far more effective than sitting down with an employer with no solution in mind.

  • Employees have a legal right to keep their mental health conditions private – most of the time. This right does not extend to employees requesting workplace accommodations. Employers fielding such requests have the legal ability to ask an employee to put their request in writing, generally describing the condition and how it affects his or her job. They might further ask for a letter from a health care provider documenting the condition and the need for an accommodation. Individuals who don’t want their employers to know their specific diagnosis can ask their provider to describe it in general terms.

  • Employers cannot legally discriminate against employees because of a mental health condition. This includes termination, rejecting someone for a job or promotion, or forcing them to take leave. That said, they don’t have to hire or keep people in jobs they can’t perform, or employ people who pose a “direct threat” to safety (a significant risk of substantial harm to self or others.) This requires objective evidence that an employee is unable to perform their work assignments or creates a significant safety risk even with reasonable accommodation. Objective evidence is vastly different from relying on myths or stereotypes associated with mental health issues.

Workplaces vary as much as people. Some are flexible and some are rigid. Some are extremely supportive of the needs of their employees, and sadly some are not. Sometimes one great boss is all it takes to find a job-specific solution to a mental health issue. Individuals looking to find ways to help succeed at work, while improving their mental health, must consider the individual nature of their jobs and the attributes of their supervisors. But they should also know their rights while understanding the rights of their employers.

Additional resources from the EEOC

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