Employers Grapple with Surge in Mental Health Issues – SHRM

Employers Grapple with Surge in Mental Health Issues – SHRM

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​More employees are struggling with mental health conditions, and as a result, employers are fielding more requests for accommodations and dealing with increased absenteeism. Pandemic-related stress at work and at home was a significant part of this trend during the last two years.
Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and other nondiscrimination laws, most employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with mental health conditions.
Forty-three percent of employers have seen a spike in reasonable accommodation requests related to mental health since the coronavirus pandemic started, according to a new survey from the law firm Fisher Phillips.
"We are seeing an increase of employees requesting remote work or a hybrid schedule to accommodate their anxiety and depression," said Emily Litzinger, a Fisher Phillips attorney in Louisville, Ky. "Additionally, there have been an uptick of requests relating to bringing an emotional support animal to the workplace to help ease the stress related to in-person work."
Accommodations aren’t something that needs to break the bank. Almost half of employers said their telework, hybrid and other flexible schedules are helping to address their workers’ mental health problems.
"Reasonable accommodations are almost always inexpensive fixes that get your workers on the right track and lead them to be more productive than they otherwise would have been," said Raeann Burgo, a Fisher Phillips attorney based in Pittsburgh.
Effective Steps to Address Mental Health
Burgo recommended the following strategies for employers:
"Employees are more likely to stay in their job if they have personalized, confidential mental health benefits," Burgo said. "Employers should think of the mental health safety of their employees just as they think of their physical safety."
Eighty-eight percent of HR professionals believe offering mental health services can increase productivity, while 86 percent believe doing so can boost retention, according to a 2022 survey by SHRM
Meanwhile, 73 percent of employers offer mental health coverage and 73 percent provide employee assistance programs, according to SHRM. But 41 percent of HR professionals feel their organization does not offer enough mental health support to employees.
Make sure mental health is not a taboo topic at the workplace. At least 59 percent of companies are openly discussing mental health and well-being in the workplace, Fisher Phillips reported.
"Don’t get scared away from starting a companywide conversation on mental health, because it may slightly increase your chances of receiving an accommodation request," Litzinger said. "As long as your managers are trained to route such requests to HR, your organization will be all the better for it."
Employees may be reluctant to discuss their mental health struggles at work, so managers should let them know it won’t lead to negative backlash.
While progress has certainly been made in the past few years, especially given the dire impact the pandemic has had on overall mental health, there is still an unfortunate stigma associated with mental health issues that employers should take specific actions to mitigate against," said Marissa Mastroianni, an attorney with Cole Schotz.
Increased Costs for Employers
Mental illness has a significant cost for employers, not just in medical claims, but also in absenteeism, turnover and presenteeism. In the Fisher Phillips survey, 51 percent of employers said they have fielded reports of burnout or mental fatigue, while 46 percent said they faced higher turnover rates and 34 percent said they faced higher absenteeism rates during the last two years.
"Employees who are unwell are more likely to call in sick and have a decrease in productivity. Absenteeism is an ongoing result of burnout from stress, anxiety and depression. Additionally, there have also been an increase in workers that are parents or caregivers that have had to take time off from work to handle their child’s mental health issues," Litzinger noted.
However, this trend has not necessarily translated to more legal battles for employers. Only 12 percent of employers faced an increase in legal claims or demands related to mental health in the last two years, Fisher Phillips reported.
In general, it’s a mistake for employers to ignore or avoid the topic of mental health.
"This is an issue that the workforce is facing across industries, and it is key for employers to get ahead of the issue by taking proactive steps to manage employee wellness. This includes creating relevant mental health policies, ensuring managers and supervisors are trained to spot mental health issues and provide resources to employees to manage their stress or anxiety," Litzinger said.
Leah Shepherd is senior legal editor with SHRM Online.
Members may download one copy of our sample forms and templates for your personal use within your organization. Please note that all such forms and policies should be reviewed by your legal counsel for compliance with applicable law, and should be modified to suit your organization’s culture, industry, and practices. Neither members nor non-members may reproduce such samples in any other way (e.g., to republish in a book or use for a commercial purpose) without SHRM’s permission. To request permission for specific items, click on the “reuse permissions” button on the page where you find the item.
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