Jenny Smiley

As we remember 2023 and look forward to a shiny new year, let’s take inventory of what young lawyers and employers should keep in mind regarding mental health accommodations in the workplace. This article is inspired partly by our 2024 DAYL President Haleigh Jones’ vision to improve the lives and wellness of young lawyers in Dallas during her presidency. This is by no means an exhaustive article addressing mental health concerns in the workplace but is meant as a refresher on workplace accommodations for both employees and employers.

The government has a multitude of statistics that demonstrate that mental health in the workplace and caused by the workplace is a topic worth discussing and acting on:

  • Nearly one in five US adults live with a mental illness;
  • Workplace stress has been reported to cause 120,000 deaths in the US each year;
  • Approximately 65% of U.S. workers surveyed have characterized work as being a very significant or somewhat significant source of stress in each year from 2019-2021;
  • 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress;
  • 54% of workers report that work stress affects their home life;
  • For every $1 spent on ordinary mental health concerns, employers see a $4 return in productivity gains.[1]

These types of statistics may even be higher for lawyers as we have considerable work stress and pressures in many areas of the law.

Federal laws protect employees who have mental health disabilities from discrimination and retaliation and also require employers to provide accommodations or FMLA leave. These disabilities include, but are not limited to, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders (including alcohol and opioids), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Mental health conditions are not always visible, but they are no less protected than a physical disability.

Employees with mental health conditions may make a variety of requests to assist them in the workplace. For example, an employee may request to work from home, a flexible schedule, leave, breaks during the workday, or for additional equipment to minimize distractions. Many accommodations can involve inexpensive investments and/or permission for the employee to work from home. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability so long as the employee’s accommodation allows him or her to perform “essential job functions” and does not cause an “undue hardship” to the employer.

After this request has been made, the employer and employee engage in an “interactive process” regarding the accommodation request. Since the pandemic started, it has been more difficult for employers to argue that employees cannot work from home, but employees should not demand work from home as the only permissible accommodation and refuse to engage in the interactive process. Both must participate in the interactive process to arrive at a reasonable accommodation to enable a qualified employee to perform the essential functions of their position.

I recognize that these are hard conversations to have, so there are resources to help: Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, https://www.tlaphelps.org/, and the U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/mental-health and https://www.osha.gov/workplace-stress are great staring places.

[1] “Workplace Stress,” OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/workplace-stress.

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Jenny Smiley specializes in employment law and represents employers in a variety of administrative proceedings and litigation matters.

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Articles on the DAYL website are provided for informational use only, and are in no way intended to constitute legal advice or the opinions or views of the DAYL.