Why Accommodations for Mental Illness in the Workplace Matter
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
– Sigmund Freud
I’ve struggled the last 20 years while working and am in a period of regrouping at the moment. I have been accommodated at work, have negotiated severances and settlements due to discriminatory practices and have spent time becoming aware of the resources available to me. I also have been a recipient of vocational rehabilitation services where I was able to have my tuition paid for to complete my MS degree in Recreation Therapy. I’m not certain what my next work endeavor will be as right now I am currently recovering. I’m an advocate for embracing the mentally ill in the workplace and am writing to hopefully help those who are also struggling.
Living with a mental illness can impact work performance and perhaps, threaten viability. Life is full of ups and downs, and sometimes a stressful event or situation, will cause decompensation even with medication and treatment compliance. During these times, work relations and performance can be compromised in various ways, discussed below. Each person struggling is unique with the challenges they face, and often will have ways they adapt and cope. Some individuals may need to request accommodations from their employer. In most cases, an individual with a disability has rights through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to receive accommodations while working, absent undue hardship on the employer. Many people struggling are unaware of their rights and the responsibilities of the employer regarding workplace accommodations.
For example, the employer has the responsibility to approach and offer assistance with the accommodations process if they can visibly see a person struggling or the employee mentions they are struggling due to their disability. Also, if an individual with a disability requests accommodations the workplace is obligated to engage in an interactive dialogue regarding the implementation of accommodations in order to help the person remain employed and successful in their job. The person with a disability must be qualified for their position and able to perform the job with or without accommodations in order to be eligible to receive accommodations, and they will more than likely need documentation from a medical provider.
Being aware of the various ways people struggle will hopefully cultivate sensitivity. A mental illness is often revealed through one’s behavior, and co-workers and supervisors may mistakenly attribute symptoms as personality traits. This is not only invalidating, but can increase symptoms by placing unrealistic demands on an individual struggling due to no fault of their own. Remember, each person who struggles is unique and is doing the best they can with an illness they would rather not have.
The following are some of the ways an individual with a mental illness may struggle while working. These are only a handful of examples and the list is not an extensive one.
The symptoms of a mental illness alone are often severe enough to cause an individual struggling to remain at home, in bed all day. These symptoms can range from extreme fatigue, tearfulness, anxiety and even feelings of derealization. It is difficult to be fully present, when unable to focus and feel a part of your surroundings. Attendance can also be affected as an episode can often exacerbate other illnesses an individual struggles with, for instance, migraines and IBS. Often, an episode can cause insomnia or excessive sleep, both of which can impact immunity. People who do not struggle often downplay the severity of an episode and the multitude of symptoms it can cause for an individual that may result in absenteeism.
Due to a diminished ability to concentrate and attend to appropriate stimuli, mistakes can be made or work may not get completed.
Many symptoms can cause strained relationships in the workplace. Mood disorders, borderline personality disorder and ADHD all can cause impulsivity that can result in someone blurting something out that is perhaps inappropriate, at times. When someone is episodic their perceptions may not be as clear, which may cause misunderstandings resulting in conflicts. Often times, because co-workers are unaware of the disorder due to lack of disclosure, these symptoms are mischaracterized as someone’s personality, instead of attributing them to an illness.
Even with people knowing about the illness, stigma is so prevalent and illnesses so vastly misunderstood that people develop a negative view of the person struggling. This only serves to further alienate the individual often causing relapse or a continuation of symptoms. Individuals who are struggling are often aware they struggle, and the act of hiding their symptoms for fear of not being accepted and embraced is another reason why symptoms increase. Interpersonal conflict at work or at home can be a trigger for an episode. Being in an unwelcoming, hostile work environment is truly unhealthy for the individual struggling with a mental illness.
Disclosure of the Illness:
Many people choose not to disclose that they are struggling with a mental illness to an employer due to the prevalence of stigma and lack of awareness. Most applications now will ask if you are able to do the job with or without accommodations and if you are requesting them at the present time. Many people who struggle continue to do so privately for fear they will not get offered the job, especially when the job has not been landed yet. Their thinking might be that they feel they can manage and want to develop rapport and a relationship, learn the culture, before feeling safe enough to disclose. Even so, disclosing in certain environments can be challenging; once the private information is disclosed, there isn’t a way to retract the information and people often are not sensitive, nor aware of the struggle of mental illness.
All of this aside, there are many people out there, working, receiving accommodations with success and feeling comfortable with those around them. Many more have disclosed and have felt discriminated against and have lost jobs. There may be a time during a severe episode where in order to save your job, it is best to disclose and request accommodations. At this point, with an accommodations request on the table, if an employer refuses to work with you, you do have leverage. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the entity that will accept charges of discrimination and will investigate and potentially mediate for a resolution or provide a “right to sue” letter in order for a lawyer to be obtained.
Another consideration for a person with a mental illness is if their disability is compatible with the environment. Environments that are dark with little to no sunlight during long winters in the Northwestern part of the country, for example, may truly drain a person with a depressive disorder. A loud, noisy office, constructed of cubicles, allowing for multiple disruptions during the day may be difficult for someone with ADHD. If a person is having a difficult time performing well due to the environment, there might be an opportunity to receive the accommodation of having an office near sunlight or one away from distraction, absent undue hardship for the employer.
Benefits/Paid Time Off:
Because episodes are often unpredictable in both frequency and duration, it may be a wise idea to become aware of the policies and benefits surrounding paid leave. Finding a company where benefits are ample, even if pay is less, may be better than struggling along from job to job that is not sustainable when struggling with an illness.
There are two helpful resources when navigating the accommodations process. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can answer questions related to your rights and the workplace’s responsibilities related to receiving workplace accommodations. The Job Accommodations Network (JAN) is another excellent resource that gives specific examples of workplace accommodations for people who are struggling.
Many people who have a mental illness are not affected in the workplace, or it is infrequent and not severe enough to request accommodations while working. But for those who are struggling the two sources can be an invaluable tool in navigating the accommodations process. One can also apply for vocational rehabilitation services, which is a state-funded service helping those with disabilities to be successful at work. Often they provide training, support through funding to attend school and can help with the accommodations process.
There are many resources out there for those struggling with employment; sometimes the largest challenge is the stigma and lack of knowledge relating to mental health issues. Using our voices and sharing our struggling will break that barrier in time.
Thanks for reading! I wish you much success in the navigation of the work world!
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