Managing employees with psychiatric disabilities

Today I had the honor of speaking on a panel with three distinguished advocates for disability rights, Lewis Bossing of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Brian East of Disability Rights Texas, and Christopher Kuczynski of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Here are eight things employers need to know when managing employees with psychiatric disabilities:

1. Employees with psychiatric disabilities, such as depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, OCD, social anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, are underrepresented in the workplace. There is no evidence that these employees are any more prone to outbursts than other employees.
2. Relatively simple accommodations for employees with psychiatric disabilities include:
• Providing written instructions, task lists, a calendar, or other reminders for employees who have concentration problems
• Reduce distractions for employees through the use of space enclosures or a private office, and allowing them to play music or use headphones
• Assist employees to divide projects into smaller tasks, and to make daily to-do lists
• Schedule regular “check-in” meetings for larger projects
• For stress relief, allow longer breaks, time off for counseling, all questions to be answered by one favored supervisor, and additional time to learn new tasks
• Provide positive reinforcement and set clear expectations
(Thank you to Brian East for these suggestions, and to the Job Accommodation Network for additional resources.) More difficult accommodation requests include requests for extended leave, job reassignment, and telecommuting. I recommend asking for legal advice when considering these requests.
3. Sometimes coworkers question why an employee is receiving special treatment. Take a proactive approach and train all employees on the ADA and accommodation process. Employers cannot disclose the existence or nature of an employee’s disability to her coworkers, but can reference the accommodation process.
4. I often hear from clients that an employee appears “depressed” or “bipolar.” Assuming that an employee has a psychiatric impairment can result in liability under the ADA, if the employer “regards” the employee as disabled.
5. The ADA does not require employers to put up with bad behavior from any employee, even a disabled employee. Employers may hold disabled employees to the same performance standards as non-disabled employees. But they may be required to accommodate employees to allow them to meet those standards.
6. Always take an employee’s request for help with a job due to a medical issue seriously. The law requires employers to engage with employees to discuss job accommodations, even if the employer doesn’t agree to an accommodation. Document all conversations with employees, and ask the employee to fill out a form when requesting an accommodation.
7. Employers can request medical documentation of the existence of a disability, and the need for a particular accommodation. Just don’t ask for more, i.e. complete medical records. I recommend using a form or letter that the employee gives to her doctor.
8. If you believe that an employee’s disability makes him a threat to himself or the workplace, or renders him unable to do his job, you can require a fitness for duty exam. This is a tricky area of the law, and I recommend seeking legal counsel before acting.