Mental Health & Employee Rights: EEOC Raises Awareness

Mental Health & Employee Rights: EEOC Raises Awareness

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently clarified a view that most well-run workplace wellness programs espouse: The importance of mental health awareness and the fact that mental health is just as important as physical health.

The EEOC’s Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights explains that “job applicants and employees with mental health conditions are protected from employment discrimination and harassment based on their conditions. They may also have a right to reasonable accommodations at work. Reasonable accommodations are work adjustments that can help individuals to perform their jobs and remain employed. The resource document also answers questions about how to get an accommodation, describes some types of accommodations, and addresses restrictions on employer access to medical information, confidentiality, and the role of the EEOC in enforcing the rights of people with disabilities.”

Said EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang: “Employers, job applicants, and employees should know that mental health conditions are no different than physical health conditions under the law. In our recent outreach to veterans who have returned home with service-connected disabilities, we have seen the need to raise awareness about these issues.”

Awareness of mental health issues continues to gain in importance. The EEOC states: “EEOC charge data shows that charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions are on the rise. During fiscal year 2016, preliminary data shows that EEOC resolved almost 5,000 charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions, obtaining approximately $20 million for individuals with mental health conditions who were unlawfully denied employment and reasonable accommodations.”

Indeed, the EEOC’s document directly addresses some key questions (find the full Q&A here):

Q: Is my employer allowed to fire me because I have a mental health condition?

A: “No. It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes firing you, rejecting you for a job or promotion, or forcing you to take leave.”

Q: Am I allowed to keep my condition private?

“In most situations, you can keep your condition private. An employer is only allowed to ask medical questions (including questions about mental health) in four situations:”

  • “When you ask for a reasonable accommodation [see next question].”
  • “After it has made you a job offer, but before employment begins, as long as everyone entering the same job category is asked the same questions.”
  • “When it is engaging in affirmative action for people with disabilities (such as an employer tracking the disability status of its applicant pool in order to assess its recruitment and hiring efforts, or a public sector employer considering whether special hiring rules may apply), in which case you may choose whether to respond.”
  • “On the job, when there is objective evidence that you may be unable to do your job or that you may pose a safety risk because of your condition.”

Q: What if my mental health condition could affect my job performance?

“You may have a legal right to a reasonable accommodation that would help you do your job. A reasonable accommodation is some type of change in the way things are normally done at work. Just a few examples of possible accommodations include altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around therapy appointments), quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., written instructions from a supervisor who usually does not provide them), specific shift assignments, and permission to work from home.”

“You can get a reasonable accommodation for any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, ‘substantially limit’ your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other ‘major life activity.’ (You don’t need to actually stop treatment to get the accommodation.)”

“Your condition does not need to be permanent or severe to be ‘substantially limiting.'”