Addressing Mental Health Concerns as a Workplace Disability
Addressing Mental Health Concerns as a Workplace Disability
According to the National Institute on Mental Health, 19 percent of American adults experience mental health conditions each year, such as depression, anxiety disorders (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder), and bi-polar disorder, to name a few. The vast majority of these individuals are of working age, so it behooves America's employers to learn strategies for fostering a mental health-friendly work culture.

For federal contractors, such strategies can help demonstrate a commitment to disability inclusion and empower employees to request the supports they need to perform their best. In this way, a mental health-friendly work culture may also support efforts to encourage employees with disabilities to self-identify, in turn helping employers measure their progress toward goals under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act.

To help employers learn more about how to cultivate a welcoming and supportive work environment for employees who have mental health conditions, the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) developed an easy-to-follow employer framework, centered on four pillars referred to as the "4 A's.

The first "A," awareness, involves strategies for educating workers on mental health issues and taking action to foster a supportive workplace culture. One example of an organization's efforts in this area is Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Leadership at the hospital said it is acutely aware of the stress that working at the facility can place on employees who care for and interact with children experiencing significant illness and trauma, and their families. As a result, the hospital has committed to ensuring the compassion it provides its patients is extended to its staff as well, with a special emphasis on their mental health needs.

This involves proactively creating opportunities for employees to talk about their emotions. As part of this, the hospital developed a mobile cart, dubbed "Code Lavender," which includes a variety of stress reduction resources, such as scented lavender, art supplies, books, water, and meditation and massage guides. For example, on a day when employees may be facing a particularly intense situation, a department might declare "Code Lavender at 2:00 p.m." to bring employees together for reflection, sharing, and relaxation. In addition, the hospital participates in Schwartz Rounds, an industry program that provides a structured forum for staff, both clinical and non-clinical, to discuss the emotional challenges of working in a hospital.

The second "A" is accommodations, meaning providing employees with mental health conditions the supports they need to perform their jobs. Common examples include flexible work arrangements and/or schedules, which may be considered reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other disability nondiscrimination laws and regulations.

Just one example of accommodations for someone with a mental health condition is a veteran with service-connected disabilities, including a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, who works for defense contractor Northrop Grumman. He uses several workplace accommodations to ensure his success on the job. These include noise-cancelling headphones and the ability to bring his service dog to work with him, and to accompany him while on company travel.

The third "A," assistance, refers to assisting employees who have, or may develop, a mental health condition, something many employers do through formal employee assistance programs (EAPs). An example of this in action is the federal contractor, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturer DuPont, which has a long and rich history with EAPs. In fact, it is regarded as having one of the first, which was then called a "corporate support program."

Today, DuPont has a number of internal initiatives focused on mental health and employee wellbeing, with strong support from top leadership. As an example, DuPont's global EAP team created and implemented an internal anti-stigma campaign called "ICU" ("I See You"), the centerpiece of which is an animated video about how to recognize signs of emotional distress in colleagues and encourage them to seek help. Based on its success, DuPont decided to make the program available to all employers, free of charge, through a partnership with the Center for Workplace Mental Health.
“…providing employee assistance in the small business environment can be especially important, given that decreased productivity…can have significant effects across an organization.”

EAPs are associated with larger businesses, but it is important to note that there are strategies small businesses can use to offer EAP services, for example, by banding together to negotiate for better prices. Business membership groups such as chambers of commerce or trade associations may be of assistance in this regard. In fact, providing employee assistance in the small business environment can be especially important, given that decreased productivity or absence of even one employee can have significant effects across an organization.

The final "A," access, encourages employers to assess healthcare plans to ensure or increase coverage for behavioral/mental health treatment. An example of this in action is federal contractor and global pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, which engages in the research, development, and sale of drugs for psychiatric and neurological disorders. According to company representatives, educating about and decreasing stigma associated with mental health are embedded in Lundbeck's seven core corporate beliefs – and this applies not just externally, but also internally for its own employees. Reflecting this, prescription medications for mental health conditions are available to employees or their dependents. Further, all benefits information received leading up to open enrollment in the company's health care plan prominently feature mental health messaging.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than 80 percent of employees treated for mental health conditions report improved levels of efficiency and satisfaction at work, demonstrating the power of ensuring access.

The "4 A's" framework is part of EARN's Mental Health Toolkit, which provides summaries of research and additional examples of initiatives implemented by employers of varying sizes and industries. Federal contractors, and all businesses, can use the toolkit to learn how to "bring their A game" when it comes to workplace mental health.

The EARN Mental Health Toolkit can be accessed at