With mental illness on the rise in America, it’s a matter of when — not if — employers will have to navigate the tricky maze of mental health accommodations for employees.

That’s the word from Ben Hase, staff attorney for Mountain States Employers Council Denver Employment Law Section, who spoke during the organization’s annual employment law update conference in Denver this week.

“One in four Americans this year will experience some sort of mental health issue,” he said. “And 80% of your workforce who experience some sort of issue will never, never tell you about it until they really need to.

“Mental health issues present very unique challenges,” he continued. “If you have an employee in a wheelchair, you can visually see an issue and see how you can help them, but if someone comes in with bipolar disorder, it’s harder to recognize or accommodate.”

Employers need to be proactive and prepare to handle such disorders, Hase said. Each incident also should be personalized, he said, and needs to be approached by a “case by case, employee by employee, ADA scenario by ADA scenario.”

Here are steps employers should follow when handling mental health cases in the workplace, according to Hase.

1. Look at the issue. First, employers need to acknowledge the problem and assess what the disability means for an employee and that person’s job performance.

2. Ask questions. The issue should be addressed with supervisors and managers — those working directly with an affected employee. “It’s important to ask questions about what they think,” Hase said. “They can give [you] more feedback about performance issues.” One beneficial question to ask is simply about what kind of reasonable accommodations should be put into place for the employee.

3. Learn about the disability — and the legal requirements. It’s important for the employer to learn more about both the disability and the legal requirements for accommodating it. The employer can speak to a healthcare provider to confirm if the disability is present in an employee, or what accommodations are necessary — if any.

It’s also important to learn about the legal obligations in regard to mental health accommodations, Hase said, adding that these will vary from state to state. “Learn what the requirements are in the jurisdiction in which your employee is working. It makes all the difference.”

4. Talk to the employee. “People skip this step all the time, and I don’t really understand it,” Hase said. “Your employees aren’t that scary. Sit the employee down and talk to them.”

It’s important for the employer to initiate the conversation, too, since employees likely will be reluctant to bring up their problem and what they are looking for from their employer.

“Reframe the conversation into one where you are helping, where you are working with the employee to figure out what you can do,” Hase said. “One important question to ask the employee is: ‘How can we support you?’ We want to figure out if we can provide reasonable accommodations, and we want to be ADA-compliant.”

5. Implement changes. Consider the conversations, employee requests, legal obligations and nature of the mental health issue as you implement changes for employees and their job duties. Finally, Hase said, employers need to continue to speak to the employee and note the progress being made. “You need to listen and see how it’s working,” he said.

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