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Balancing Mental Health Accommodations with Workplace Policies

November 17, 2016

Millions of Americans live with mental illness and face the task of combating mental health impairments in their daily lives. Depending on the type and severity of an individual’s mental illness, he or she may struggle to perform some required job duties. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if a person has a mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity, then that person has a disability for which employers may be required to provide reasonable accommodation. However, providing an accommodation, even if it is reasonable, can be challenging.

There needs to be an ongoing, interactive process between the employer and the employee for making accommodations to ensure the best outcome for both sides. Employers may provide employees who have a mental illness with additional communication options or regularly scheduled meetings. Additionally, employers may wish to have a written set of agreed-upon goals so that both parties remain up-to-date on needs and expectations.

When making an accommodation for an employee with a mental illness, employers can consider factors such as time management, stress, and the employee’s concentration. Although employers may make their best efforts to try and provide an accommodation, they are not required to do so if it would impose an undue hardship.

In order to help employees perform to the best of their ability, employers may provide accommodations such as flexible schedules, job restructuring, private workspaces, or allowing employees to bring service animals. While these adjustments may help increase an employee’s level of production, they might not always be able to bring the level up to where the employer wants. Furthermore, even with an accommodation, the employee still needs to comply with the employer’s policies.

Production Requirements

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are not prohibited from conducting employee evaluations for employees with mental illness in the same manner that they would for employees without a disability. In fact, evaluations and reviews should be uniform for all employees performing similar tasks.

Although employers are not required to make adjustments to their standards, they may need to make reasonable accommodations for employees with mental illnesses that contribute to performance issues. The EEOC does not consider the creation of a different performance standard to be a reasonable accommodation. Instead, employers are advised to provide employees with clear guidelines that focus on the quality and the quantity of work that employees with specific positions are expected to complete.

Production standards should be the same for both employees with disabilities and employees without disabilities, such as amount of cases completed or number of clients served. However, employees should not be required to complete their tasks the same way as their colleagues. Part of providing a reasonable accommodation is that the employer may offer alternative ways for an employee to carry out his or her duties. Because each employee’s needs are different, employers may be required to allow for tasks to be completed in various ways. For example, if a deaf employee is required to give a presentation, he or she may be more comfortable doing so in sign language with an interpreter orally translating the signs to the audience. When alternative practices such as this are used, the employer may only evaluate the employee based on his or her ability to perform the task with the provided accommodation.

Workplace Safety

Many employees with mental illnesses do not have trouble conducting themselves in an appropriate manner in the workplace. However, if an employee with a disability does act out or otherwise violates the employer’s conduct policy, then the employer may take corrective action.

Even when an employee’s disability causes a conduct violation, an employer may take corrective action, as long as the conduct policy is applied equally to all employees and is job-related and consistent with business necessity. When determining whether an employee violated such a policy, courts may look to the employee’s specific disability, the frequency of occurrences, the nature of the job, and the working environment.

Employers may set certain policies, such as violence-free workplace, that will always be considered job-related and consistent with business necessity. Threats of violence, destruction of other’s property, failure to follow safety rules, and disrespecting others are all conduct violations for which employers may discipline employees with mental illness. Courts have upheld employer’s decisions to impose and enforce policies that protect the health and safety of everyone in the workplace, especially when an employee poses a direct threat to others.

Drugs and Alcohol

Under the ADA, certain employees can be protected if they are alcoholics, as long as they remain qualified to perform necessary job functions. Additionally, recovering drug addicts may qualify as long as they are no longer engaged in the illegal use of drugs. However, employers may apply the same performance and conduct standards to these employees as they do to the rest of the workforce. Employers may take corrective action against an employee for violation of the employer’s drug and alcohol policy, regardless of whether the employee’s addiction caused the violation.


Part of an employee’s essential duties typically include appropriate attendance and punctuality. If an employee’s mental health issues cause him or her to consistently be late or incur an excessive amount of absences, an employer may enforce the attendance policy in place. However, under some circumstances, where an employee’s attendance or punctuality is directly affected by the employee’s mental illness, and the employee makes a request for an accommodation, the employer may be required to make a reasonable accommodation by altering the attendance policy, for example, allowing the employee to have a flexible start time.


Although the ADA provides numerous protections for employees with mental illnesses, employers are still able to impose certain standards that are applicable to their entire workforce. Furthermore, accommodations for employees with mental health issues are not required if they impose an undue hardship on the employer. Nevertheless, employers are cautioned to be open-minded and understanding of an employee’s mental illness. Engaging in an ongoing interactive process with employees can be the easiest way to ensure that the employer’s standards and expectations are met and the employee’s needs are provided for.

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