Maria Alves's employer fired her when she didn't return from her maternity leave. Well, to be fair, they gave her one extension and fired her when she asked for a second extension.

That may seem reasonable--companies aren't obligated to hold your job forever, and the US requires only 12 weeks of unpaid time off--if you qualify for FMLA. So, why did Boston University lose a lawsuit?

Because Alves not only had a new baby, she had postpartum depression (PPD). Most women (50-75 percent) suffer from the "baby blues" after giving birth, but 10 percent of new moms can experience a more severe postpartum depression. (One in a thousand experience postpartum psychosis, which is far more severe.)

The baby blues generally clears up on its own in a couple of weeks, but PPD can last for months or longer and should be treated by competent medical professionals. And like other mental health problems, PPD can be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

ADA requires that you provide employees with reasonable accommodations. That can include additional time off. A jury found that Boston University did not follow the interactive process and come to a reasonable accommodation for Alves and awarded her $144,000 in back pay and emotional distress. 

How can you help an employee with PPD?

With 10 percent of women suffering from PPD after giving birth, you'll probably have an affected employee sooner or later. See Her Thrive is a UK based organization that focuses on women's health in the office. Director and business psychologist Clare-Louise Knox spoke with me about what businesses can do.

First, Knox said, HR and managers need to recognize that this is possible, and policies should be in place before someone needs it. Secondly, a similar affliction called post-natal depression can affect men as well, so it's not just a female problem.

But, most importantly, Knox says, companies should work with women returning to work and recognize that "women can experience a significant drop in self-esteem after having a baby which makes returning to work stressful for some." Women in the US, who work for companies with 15 or more employees are eligible for ADA protections if they suffer from PPD, and you can help with that transition.

Does ADA require unlimited time off?

The short answer is no. It requires a reasonable accommodation--not that you hold a job for years and years. What is reasonable will vary from organization to organization and position. However, you should look for a reason to say yes to an employee who needs help.

A leave of absence isn't the only potentially reasonable accommodation for an employee suffering from PPD. The EEOC writes, "Employer policies that require employees on extended leave to be 100 percent healed or able to work without restrictions may deny some employees reasonable accommodations that would enable them to return to work."

In other words, you can work with your employees and perhaps provide a part-time or flexible schedule, or change some of their job requirements to help with the return to work. The accommodation needs to be reasonable--you don't have to make a new job or displace other employees. But, if it's reasonable to do so, work with the returning employee.
The critical thing here is that you work with your employees to come to a solution. At some point, it can be unreasonable to continue to hold a job or to provide a reduced workload. But, that is hardly ever the case when an employee should be returning from FMLA or other maternity leave.

Firing too quickly can result in a lawsuit and a big payout, as Boston University found out. Instead, be compassionate and follow the law. It's cheaper and better for your organization.