Dirty Little Secrets

Nora Akins

The laws to protect mentally ill employees have been in place for years. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) makes sure group health plans provide as much treatment for mental illness and substance abuse as other medical and surgical benefits. The Americans with Disabilities Act includes the prohibition of discrimination and requires the exploration of accommodations for individuals who have mental impairments that qualify as a disability under the Act.

Yet most employers do not know how to provide employees with mental disorders their rights. Employers understand the need for a surgery, but not what is needed to help an employee with bipolar disorder succeed. Fortunately, employers are not charged with operating on or treating their employees. They are charged with understanding employees may have needs to be physically and mentally healthy and providing accommodations to have those needs lessened and/or treated so the employees can be successful in their jobs.

Employees are seldom afraid to request time off for surgery. Many employees fear confessing about a struggle with depression, substance abuse or other mental disorders. Their fear is based on a long-lived stigma about mental illness. That stigma often stops people from seeking treatment, and certainly from disclosing their treatment to others. That same stigma leads employers to discrimination, avoidance and so many assumptions.

The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates one in four American adults experience mental health impairment in a given year. The World Health Organization warned that depression and other mental health conditions are on the rise. According to the National Business Group on Health, more work day absences occur due to mental illness than many chronic medical conditions. Employers must recognize its presence.

DuPont, the chemical company leads the way for employers. The company established a program in 2012 called I.C.U. which stands for Identify, Connect and Understand. It’s an educational initiative to help employees identify the signs of depression and reach out and support co-workers exhibiting those signs.

“It’s a simple message about recognizing when an employee is distressed…It’s just about breaking through hesitancy to express human concern,” according to DuPont’s global manager of employee assistance and work-life balance, Paul Heck.

Employees are not required to disclose their impairment. Once an employee self-identifies, employers should obtain medical information needed to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be made. The employer should engage the employee in an interactive process to get all the information on the table. The employer cannot be afraid to talk to the employee after learning of any disability. Together determine what the employee needs to succeed.

What all should employers do:

• Become aware of your current behavioral health benefits including how to access them and what educational programs are available. Inform your employees of these benefits.

• Consider adding an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to your benefit package. Talk to your insurance provider about this low cost counseling program. Use the educational benefits the EAP provides.

• Discourage hurtful and stigmatizing labels, such as crazy and loony.

• Train managers to use empathetic coaching skills and how to identify and encourage distressed employees to get help.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management, focuses on employer compliance and employee performance by providing management training and refining human resource systems; she can be reached at 873-1735 or nora@managepeopleright.com.

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