mental health in the workplace

Mental Health in the Workplace

Until recent years, mental health has had an underappreciated, yet significant, impact on the American workplace. Long hours, difficult assignments, and limited time for family and friends often increase or worsen mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and general ‘burnout.’ Burnout is a colloquial term used to describe the apathetic, unengaged feeling many workers get after long periods of grueling, relentless, or intense workloads.  Though it has yet to be recognized as a true medical condition, the World Health Organization labeled burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” characterized by decreased efficiency and productivity. Strains on mental health at work can have a profound impact on the employee; unacknowledged and unaddressed, these strains can have serious and long-term consequences for both the employer and the employee, leading to long-term absences, attrition and lawsuits. Studies have also shown that a failure to address mental health in the workplace can have deleterious consequences for the bottom line, decreasing overall company productivity and corporate profitability.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought this issue even further into the spotlight.  Many employees’ mental health has deteriorated due to limited human interaction and COVID-19 related anxiety. Amid all this chaos and uncertainty, businesses and employees persevere, as the needs of their clients and customers remain paramount. Keeping business afloat during an unprecedented era has taken individual effort at every level. Whether their hard work has been executed remotely or in the office, employees’ show of commitment should be noticed, appreciated, and respected. Burnout from COVID-19 is extremely prevalent, especially for the millions of Americans already suffering from mental illness.

One area in which COVID-19 has challenged mental health is in the use of vacation time, a benefit that is not generally protected or ensured by law unless specific states or municipalities have chosen to do so. About half of all employers that do offer vacation time do not allow that time to accrue and be used in the following year. Therefore, many people did not use this vacation time because, to state the obvious, there was no possibility to vacation.  So, not only are employees engaged in a rigorous work schedule, but they also have this nagging thought of ‘you have all these benefits to time off, too bad you cannot actually use them because of a global crisis.’ This ability to exercise rights to benefits, which would help alleviate burnout and other related mental health issues, has been severely limited by the nature of COVID-19.  So, while it may be a benefit to some employees, paid vacation time is not always available to employees because it is not mandated by law and because it is often contingent on employer discretion.

Those who work for employers covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (i.e. those with 50 or more employees), however, may request time off for certain mental and physical health reasons and should be protected from discrimination for that request.  One common but under-discussed and analyzed phenomenon is the extent to which mental health issues arise of physical health conditions. Yet another under-recognized phenomenon is pre-existing mental health conditions that, when exacerbated by a serious threat such as COVID-19, might render an employee temporarily unable to work; so, where an employee with mental illness might have had no difficulty working prior to COVID-19, the expanding threat of COVID-19 could require time away from work.   

In all, laws around mental health in the workplace are complicated and varied, depending on the jurisdiction. One consistency, however, is that workplace mental health is more readily recognized today as a legitimate area of concern that warrants consideration and accommodation. Less people now believe that mental health days are an excuse to have a paid day off; the growing trend is to recognize that burnout is a common occurrence for American employees and a day off here and there can boost both morale and productivity.  Employers must also be cautious, as, even without employer-sponsored days off for mental health, employees may still have a right to take time off for mental health under the ADA, the FMLA or related statutes.  Violating these statutory rights creates liability for the employer and adversely harms the employee.   Navigating the complexity of these statutes and the direct impact they have on the work environment is best done in consultation with an employment attorney.

We see the advantage in the trend of employer-sponsored time away from work, not only for the more specific and individual needs of an employee but more broadly for needs related to burnout in general and employees as a group. This is particularly true as it not only champions the employee but also directly impacts long-term productivity and profitability. In staying with this trend, Rogge Dunn Group, PC recently had a firm-wide trip to Cancún, Mexico, specifically to combat COVID-19 burnout. After a long year of walking a tight rope between remote work, backed up courts, in-person safety compliance, and a number of other unprecedented issues, Rogge Dunn believes the trip was well earned and essential. 

If you have any questions regarding mental health and the workplace, contact an employment attorney today.

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