Last week, I was sitting outside at a restaurant on a busy, foot-traffic-only street. One of my teen's friends walked by and stopped to chat. She was with a group of other friends. I mentioned how sad my daughter was that they had had to cancel their lunch date earlier in the week. She apologized and said, "I know. I forgot I had a psych appointment."
None of her friends seemed nervous or upset to find out that their friend met with a psychiatrist. I'm pretty sure they already knew, and they didn't care.
While mental health was a taboo subject in the past, it's less so now. This means that your employees are likely to bring up their mental health struggles, and you need to be prepared to talk about it.
The Wall Street Journal asked when it's OK to reveal to your boss that you're having mental health problems. Their expert, Jill Hooley, a psychology professor at Harvard University, says that she is "leery" of having her patients speak to their bosses.
She's right that there are stigmas, and there can be negative results when people speak up, but she misses a crucial aspect of mental health: legal protection.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if an employee's condition has a significant impact on their day-to-day life, they are entitled to a reasonable accommodation. As a general rule, if they don't ask, you're not required to accommodate them. (There are exceptions for when you should have known. You'll never get away with saying you didn't know an employee in a wheelchair needed an office that can be reached without using stairs.)
When an employee tells you they have a mental health issue.
An employee may or may not need an accommodation at the moment, but when your employee comes to you, the proper response is always "Thanks for letting me know. How can I help you best succeed in your role?"
They may not know, and they may not have a need right now, but you are put on notice. You can't come back later and say, "I didn't know Jane suffered from depression! I just thought she was a slacker!"
Now, ADA isn't a get-out-of-work-free card. Employees still have to complete the core functions of their job at the same standard as every other employee. It's just that they may be entitled to an accommodation. You can (and should) ask the employee to have their physician fill out ADA paperwork and use that as a guide for an interactive discussion about an accommodation.
An interactive discussion is a back and forth conversation. You should always involve your HR department in this. Don't try it on your own.
The younger generation is much more open.
As The Wall Street Journal points out, there are negative stereotypes around mental illness that can keep people from getting the mental health care they need. But it's not an even spread across the generations. The American Psychological Association finds that Generation Z is much more likely to report having mental health concerns.
This is significant in two ways: One, they have more mental health problems, and two, they report it more. This means that your younger employees may be far more open to talking about their mental health concerns than your older employees.
Embrace this, and be glad. It's far better for your employees to get the help they need than it would be if they tried to hide their concerns. As Baby Boomers retire and Gen-Z hits the workforce full-on, you'll see more requests for accommodations. Remember, they need to be reasonable.
It's not reasonable for a customer-facing employee to request an accommodation to work from home three days a week, regardless of what their therapist suggests. It may be reasonable for a back-office accountant to request the same thing. That's why the process is interactive and the rules are not set in stone.
Seek legal counsel
If you can't come to an agreement with your employee about a reasonable accommodation, consult with your local employment lawyer before taking an adverse action. Remember that the court can see any negative action as retaliation--even if you want to argue that the employee doesn't qualify for protection. It's always worth the money to ask in advance rather than to face your employee in court.
Don't be shocked when employees come to you with their mental health concerns. Be grateful that they see your company's culture as inclusive and supportive. That's a great thing for your business.