Even with health insurance, far too many working Americans choose to suffer silently with a mental health condition or disability. Often they go without treatment out of fear they could lose their job. But would the same be true if they knew there were legal protections in place that gave them the job-protected right to seek treatment or go to rehab? Maybe not. This article discusses those key job protections for mental health disabilities that any worker in this country, be they a working professional or blue-collar worker, can benefit from knowing about.
Understanding Job Protection and Behavioral Health or Dependency Issues
Entering into inpatient treatment for an addiction or mental illness is a big step, and it’s one that can be especially difficult for workers. According to Janet Gerhard, the Director of Public and Community Affairs at FHE Health, concerns regarding how seeking treatment will affect their career prevent many workers from getting the help they need.
Gerhard cites this common misconception, stating, “Among the chief reasons that individuals don’t seek inpatient care when they’re struggling with addiction or mental health is because they’re afraid they might lose their jobs, but the law is actually on their side.”
As a field expert, Gerhard works primarily with labor union leaders to help union presidents, shop stewards and others protect the jobs of union employees who need treatment. She offers some advice on what signs might prompt leadership or employers to realize there’s a problem and what options individuals have for seeking help.
Various Laws Protect Many Employees
Employees seeking mental healthcare don’t have to be in a union to enjoy job security. As Gerhard explains, “It’s not just union employees who are protected under American law. We use state and federal laws to hold jobs for 90 days or more for individuals who require residential or intense outpatient treatment.”
Protection for Workers with Drug or Alcohol Addiction
Gerhard points to the Americans with Disabilities Act as an example of the types of laws that provide such protection. The ADA recognizes drug and alcohol addiction as a medical condition, which means missing work to seek treatment for those issues is protected under the Family Medical Leave Act. FMLA is a federal law that requires employers to hold positions for protected individuals who need to take time off work to seek treatment or assist an immediate family member who requires medical treatment. In short, FMLA means that a protected employee cannot be fired, even after taking a certain amount of leave, to deal with such issues.
It’s important to note that the ADA’s definition of an “individual with a disability” doesn’t extend to those who are using illegal drugs or alcohol while working. Under the ADA, an employer can fire a worker who uses drugs or alcohol while they’re on the job or who arrives to work under the influence of a substance. An employee can also be fired if their substance use impacts their job performance or creates an unsafe environment for themselves or their coworkers. However, an individual can’t be fired for voluntarily seeking treatment under these circumstances.
Furthermore, businesses with fewer than 15 employees are not subject to ADA’s rules. In some cases, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees aren’t required to offer FMLA leave to workers.
Protection for Workers with Mental Illnesses
Similarly, the ADA protects employees from discrimination based on mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and other mental disorders that may qualify for Social Security disability payments. Under the law, workers can’t legally be fired for:
- A mental illness that substantially limits one or more life activities
- A history of mental illness
- An employer’s belief that a worker has a mental illness, even if the worker doesn’t
It’s important for workers to tell their employer if they have a long- or short-term disability like depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety. This is especially important if the disability is interfering with job performance. For example, if acute depression affects an employee’s work performance, the employer may be more sympathetic if they understand the reason behind a change in productivity.
Telling an employer about a mental illness gives the opportunity to ask for what the ADA calls “reasonable accommodation.” For a worker who struggles with getting enough sleep due to anxiety, this may mean asking for a later shift, or the employer may provide flexibility with work hours to enable the worker to attend doctor’s appointments.
Signs and Symptoms on the Job
It’s important for both employees and employers to recognize when someone might be struggling with mental health or addiction issues. Gerhard points out that it’s union leadership’s job to watch for these signs so they can step in to assist a union worker in need and ensure a safe workplace.
But this is true for employers, managers and others. Many employers, even in the absence of a union presence, offer Employee Assistance Programs and other resources. They realize that allowing a person to remain on the job while they are struggling with such issues isn’t good for anyone — including the employee in question, their coworkers and the company as a whole.
Gerhard outlines several signs for union leaders and employers that may indicate that it’s time to seek help from outside resources on behalf of an employee who may be struggling with addiction or mental illness.
1. Increased Tardiness
Individuals who are dealing with addiction or a behavioral health issue may not be able to remain on appropriate timelines. They may abuse drugs or alcohol at night or other times, causing them to ignore obligations, or they may stay out late and have trouble waking up and getting to work on time. In some cases, depression or anxiety can simply keep them in bed even though they know they’re supposed to be going to work.
2. Difficulty Showing Up for Work
In even more extreme cases, individuals may skip work completely. They may call in sick more with increasingly poor excuses, or they may not bother calling in at all.
3. Misuse of FMLA
Individuals can qualify for two types of FMLA. The first type allows for an extended leave from work for a set amount of time. The second type, known as intermittent FMLA, protects individuals who may have to take off intermittently for health reasons. It also protects workers who take time off to care for a spouse or child with medical issues.
In some cases, workers with recognized disabilities may misuse FMLA. FMLA fraud includes lying or misrepresenting a situation to obtain FMLA and using time off to recover from drug or alcohol use. Workers may also overuse their FMLA by taking off more days than what was allotted to them.
4. Frequent Trips Out to Vehicles
Frequently leaving their work location to take a break in or visit their vehicle can be a sign that an employee has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Employers and union leaders shouldn’t jump to conclusions; many workers spend their 15-minute morning breaks reading in their car or enjoy napping in their front seat during lunchtime. However, if the trips are consistent throughout the day or don’t follow a pattern, such as spending time alone during lunch, there may be an issue.
5. Behaviors Between Employees
While not all drama between coworkers indicates drug use or mental illness, employers may want to watch for patterns. If one employee is consistently in conflict with others, a bigger issue may be at hand. Gerhard notes the importance of staying attuned to these conflicts, stating, “Difficulty managing workplace relationships is a sign not necessarily of addiction but possibly of an underlying behavioral health issue.”
Actions to Take
For those who are living with addiction or whose behavioral health issues are impacting their job, or for those who see someone else in this situation, there are actions that can be taken. Union leaders can step in to help the worker deal with the problem, and employers can make it known that resources are available.
Gerhard describes the programming at FHE Health and how it can benefit employers and union leaders by fostering a healthy work environment, saying, “FHE Health provides training for union leaders specifically for this purpose. Leaders can help employees facilitate an assessment, which allows a behavioral health professional to understand the situation and provide some recommendations for the right next steps and level of treatment.”
While residential treatment, also called inpatient treatment, is often seen as the best option for those dealing with an addiction and for intense behavioral health issues, it’s not the only treatment option available. Here’s a look at some of the levels of treatment that might be the right choice for anyone dealing with issues in the workplace or any other area of their life.
Therapy with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Typically, an individual sees an LCSW for one-on-one therapy for an hour once every week or two. During this time, the client undergoes “talk therapy,” which may include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy or EMDR. Gerhard says that this is a common approach to issues such as stress, marital or relationship problems or anxiety. It may also be a step people take after completing inpatient and outpatient treatment for addiction.
Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP). As Gerhard explains, IOP generally involves living at home and traveling to a mental health facility for scheduled intensive therapy. Clients may visit the facility three to five times per week for a set number of hours and participate in individual or group sessions. The individual might also see a psychiatrist, who can prescribe and manage any medications.
Residential Treatment. Residential treatment is the most immersive option and involves living at a facility for weeks or months. During this time, the client seeks sobriety or works on behavioral health conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, or severe anxiety. After the duration of the treatment is complete, individuals might step down by first going to IOP and then to individual therapy.
Getting Help with FHE Health
While addiction and mental illnesses are common among workers, many people don’t receive the treatment they need. “One in four people nationally have an untreated behavioral health issue,” says Gerhard. “Those issues can run the gamut from mild to severe, but it’s important for anyone who is struggling with addiction or mental health to be able to seek the treatment they need. And no one should avoid treatment simply because they are afraid for their job.”
If you’re unsure how entering treatment for an addiction or mental illness will affect your employment, our admissions specialists are here to help. We can guide you on the best approach for beginning treatment while preserving your job. Call us today at 833-962-2822.