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Creating Effective Job Accommodations is Good for Business
About 20% of American workers live with a mental health condition.1 Employers can contribute to their success with reasonable accommodations for those who need them. Implementing reasonable accommodations can smooth the transition back to work after disability leave, reducing costs associated with lost productivity and performance. This can be key in retaining valuable employees.
How is "disability" defined?
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), defines a disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities."2
The ADA and other nondiscrimination state and federal laws require employers with 15 or more employees to provide "reasonable accommodations" to qualified employees with disabilities.3
What is a reasonable accommodation?
Reasonable accommodations are adjustments to a work environment, making it possible for qualified employees with disabilities to do their job. In determining what is reasonable, an employer should start with the request made by an employee with a disability.4 Employers should consider the type of work environment, the position the employee holds and how the person’s disability affects their ability to perform their job.
Not all employees with mental health conditions need accommodations to perform their jobs. In addition, employers are not obligated to provide reasonable accommodations if to do so imposes an undue hardship.4 Hardship depends on the size of the organization and the nature of the business.
Job Accommodations Process
Disclosing a mental health disability. An employer can only accommodate a disability they are aware of. Therefore, an employee must disclose their disability to start the accommodations' process.2,3,5
Securing preliminary documentation. Because mental health conditions are often invisible, an employer may request medical documentation from a treating health care provider to confirm the need for an accommodation.
Establishing an open dialogue. Communication between employers and employees is important in developing reasonable accommodations. Employees know the barriers that stem from the disability and what's needed to perform well at work. On the flip side, employers know the essential functions of the job and the organizational policies and process for granting reasonable accommodations. Positive results come when employees feel supported and employers are satisfied that high quality work is being done.
Implementing reasonable accommodations. Once the accommodations are set, it's time to determine when and how they will go into effect. If an employer cannot fulfill an employee's request, they should provide a detailed reason for denial. In the end, the employer decides what accommodations are reasonable and will be implemented.
Documenting accommodations. It is essential to document reasonable accommodations and the process for implementation so that all involved have a clear understanding of expectations moving forward.
Maintaining ongoing communication. Because making accommodations is not always a quick fix, employers and employees should keep the lines of communication open. That way, if adjustments are needed, they can more easily be made.
What Employers Can Do
Accommodations may vary, just as people's strengths, work environments and job duties vary. Below are examples of accommodations that employees with mental health related disabilities have found helpful in performing their jobs more effectively:3,6
Management/Supervision. Supportive supervision that includes positive reinforcement and constructive feedback is highly encouraged during the accommodations process. Employers may also consider adjustments in level of supervision and additional forms of communication. This might include providing assignments and instructions in the employee's preferred learning style (written, verbal, e-mail, demonstration) as well as written tools such as daily checklists and meeting notes.
Flexible Scheduling/ Telework. Allowing flexibility can be valuable during the accommodations' process. Employees may be more productive teleworking if the position allows the opportunity to work remotely. If that's not an option, flexible work schedules can encourage peak performance. This can include adjustments in the start or end of work hours, part-time work hours or comp time.
Breaks. With consideration given to an employee's needs, breaks can boost attention span and increase mental ability. An example would be allowing more frequent breaks and providing backup coverage during those breaks.7
Sick Leave. If an employee with a mental health condition is struggling, sick leave allows them to take time off for therapy, treatment, recovery or other mental health related appointments without worrying about missing work.
Physical Workspace Modifications. Often, simple workplace adjustments can allow an employee with a mental health condition to be more productive. Some of these tangible changes can include:
- Private offices or cubicles instead of open workspaces
- Office/workspace location away from noisy machinery
- Reduction of workplace noise that can be adjusted (such as telephone volume)
- Increased natural lighting
Equipment/Technology. Providing certain equipment like recorders for meetings and training sessions, noise canceling headsets and electronic organizers are great.
Job Duties. Employers should consider reasonable modifications to employees' duties and responsibilities that support them in performing the essential functions of the job. This could include dividing larger assignments into smaller tasks, providing support for learning new ways to carry out responsibilities, and training on how to perform new tasks.
Developing reasonable accommodations can be as varied as employees with mental health conditions. Be sure your organizational policies around accommodations are clear. Employees with mental health conditions bring talent and diverse perspectives to the workplace so supporting them is good for business.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, 1-800-526-7234 (V/TTY).
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Enforcement Guidance on the ADA and Psychiatric Disabilities.
Last Updated: 2019
- Prevalence of Mental Illness. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2019, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154785
- What is the definition of disability under the ADA? (August 2019). Retrieved August 16, 2019, from https://adata.org/faq/what-definition-disability-under-ada
- Accommodation and Compliance: 5 Practical Tips (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2019, from https://askjan.org/topics/accommo.cfm
- Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (May 2019). Retrieved August 17, 2019 from https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html
- The Accommodations Process: Steps to Collaborative Solutions (n.d.) Retrieved August 15, 2019, from a link that is no longer functional as of April 19, 2022: https://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/misc/job.htm
- Mental Health Impairments (n.d.) Retrieved August 19 from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Mental-Health-Impairments.cfm#spy-scroll-heading-2
- Salig, M. How Do Breaks Help Your Brain, April 2017. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201704/how-do-work-breaks-help-your-brain-5-surprising-answers.