Do Your Disability and Leave Policies Support Employees With Mental Illness?
I must confess that I knew relatively little about Anthony Bourdain prior to his untimely death. I watched his show, Parts Unknown, a couple of times. He appeared to be a man with an incredibly interesting life, who travels, eats and drinks in some fascinating places with a diverse set of individuals. He shed light on the less glamorous, sharing the unique aspects of people and culture that really deserve more attention in our celebrity-obsessed world.
Mr. Bourdain’s objectively rich and meaningful experiences tragically juxtaposed with the report of his taking his own life warranted my learning a bit more about him. Like many today, I read about his reputation as a talented chef, author and television personality with a gift for showing genuineness. He had huge numbers of friends, acquaintances and admirers and offered thoughtful stories with food as a foundation.
And, yet, I was struck by a quote from The New Yorker magazine profile which described what we now know was a great personal battle. “I have the best job in the world,” he said. “If I’m not happy it is a failure of imagination.”
We knew so little about Mr. Bourdain’s personal mental health struggle, but it’s clear that despite all of his friends, acquaintances and admirers, he felt depressed and isolated enough to take his own life. How can this happen?
How well do you know the people with whom you work? How can you tell if someone is happy or unhappy? How can you tell whether someone suffers from an illness with no obvious symptoms? Despite your pain, if you didn’t want to share your illness with someone, would you feel isolated?
Nearly 1 in every 5 Americans suffers from mental health issues. The rate of suicides increased 25% during the past 20 years. But in those 20 years, how have our disability and leave laws and employment policies evolved to make access to help easier?
Well, let me ask you, if you were suddenly struck with an illness, and felt completely isolated because you needed time off from work or flexibility for treatment, what would you do?
If the answer is, refer to your company’s employee handbook, what would it say? Have you read your employee leave and disability accommodation policies recently? If you are a Human Resources professional or company/business decision-maker, I suggest you read your Employee Handbook and ask yourself, “If I were mentally or physically ill, alone and feeling helpless, what answers or support would the policies provide me?”
It’s not enough for us to expect employees or employers to understand, interpret and implement policies compliant with the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and state sick leave and anti-discrimination laws. What does it really mean to engage in the interactive process? What is meant by a reasonable accommodation? What is meant by a serious health condition or a qualified disability? Even the most seasoned professionals struggle to apply these terms/phrases clearly, succinctly and consistently, since few employee scenarios are similar.
What an opportunity for practitioners not only to ensure compliance with applicable laws, but also to describe options to those most in need of plain language during a time of personal trauma. Rather than draft policies to prevent abuse or over-accommodation, provide clear direction using easy-to-understand terms:
- What is considered a disability?
- Do I have to give you records to show that I’m disabled?
- I’m really sick and can’t deal with this at the moment, can I have a day or two off to figure things out?
- Under what circumstances can I take time off?
- How much time off can I take?
- What do I have to tell my manager?
- What will this mean for my job when I return?
- Will I still have a job?
- What if I can’t return to my job for a while, and maybe longer than the policy allows?
- What will this mean for compensation and benefits?
Most importantly, offer an open door to allow an employee to talk to someone! Sometimes, an employee just doesn’t know what to do. Identify someone on your team who can listen, offer empathy and provide/access clear direction. Yes, you will have the abusers, but your policies aren’t just there to protect the company from those who want use your process pretextually. Your policies can actually provide the beginning of a critical recovery roadmap for the mentally or physically ill employee.
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