New Equal Employment/ Mental-Illness Guidelines

It was reported in a number of news periodicals this week that new guidelines issued by the federal government to help employers understand how the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to people with mental illness calling for broad accommodations for emotionally ill workers.

Courts aren't bound to uphold the guidelines, but they often consider agency rules when deciding cases. The guidelines are also significant because many companies have had trouble grappling with how to comply with the ADA in cases where employees have mental and not physical problems.

Many employers and consultants believe that companies will now have to train managers on evaluating signs that workers have emotional problems. Barry Newman, a consultant at Aon Consulting, says an employee's complaining that he is "depressed and stressed" could be regarded as a clue that a disability may be at play. "Who doesn't use a phrase like that once in a while?" he asks. The manager will have to be "very careful with that person because [the manager has] been put on notice that they may have a disability."

Advocates for the mentally ill applaud the guidelines and insist they won't be financially onerous for companies. Jay Cutler, special counsel to the American Psychiatric Association, calls the guidelines "reasonable and responsible," pointing out that they don't put a burden on employers to monitor an employee's medication, for example. The guidelines, he says, "open the door to employment that should have always been open."

Ronald Honberg, director of legal affairs for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, says that "most people understand that somebody in a wheelchair needs accommodation in the workplace. It's less clear what kind of accommodations are necessary for someone with a mental illness."

Mr. Honberg says that his organization, which represents 140,000 mentally ill people and their families, typically hears about requests for time off for treatment and requests for adjustments to work schedules. For example, patients on some medications for depression or bipolar disorder are sometimes groggy early in the morning. "A lot of these are just sort of common-sense-type steps. For the most part, these accommodations are not expensive." . The guidelines have been issued at a time when many employers are cutting back on mental-health coverage and hiring managed-care firms to scrutinize benefits. Mr. Cutler, of the American Psychiatric Association, says he hopes that the guidelines will encourage companies to provide coverage because it will lead to "more cost-effective employment and reduced costs to the employer."

But some people who work in the mental-health field are less hopeful. "The new guidelines are a Catch-22," says Jim Wrich of Wrich Associates in Chicago, a mental-health consulting firm. "They will work only if people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse get the right help the first time -- and that isn't likely at all today because most companies have adopted managed-care plans" that limit treatment, he says.


EEOC Enforcement Guidance: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Diseases: (Adobe Acrobat is required to view this information)

The Americans With Disabilities Act:

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

Consumer's Guide to Disability Rights Laws:

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