Mental health conditions in the workplace present challenges for both employers and employees. For employees, the effects can be sudden and unpredictable, and the social prejudice and stigma surrounding mental health can leave employees reluctant to ask for assistance. For employers, these “hidden” disabilities are often misunderstood. Given that approximately one in five U.S. adults experiences mental health issues, employers need to develop strategies for supporting ongoing employment.

When employees’ mental health impacts job performance, one challenge for employers and employees is having that first discussion regarding possible accommodations. Adrienne Paler, Sutter Health’s Director of Integrated Disability and Absence Management (IDAM), says that trust can be an issue for employees, who may fear what supervisors and peers will think if they ask for help.  Paler’s organization has equipped agents in their human resources contact center with tools to streamline accommodation requests and reduce employee sensitivities or concerns about stigma.

As part of their Workplace Mental Health initiative to eliminate the social prejudice and stigma toward people who have mental health conditions, Sutter Health is developing a curriculum for managers and employees that will be deployed this year. The program will build competencies around working with employees affected by mental health conditions, including peer-group awareness training, notes Stephanie Walsh, Sutter Health’s Director of Total Health & Productivity Management, Bay Area. Training managers will help dispel myths and misconceptions about mental health and provide guidance on strategies for navigating accommodation requests.

Because the process of accommodation is interactive, engagement with the employee to find collaborative solutions is key. The interaction helps identify the employee’s needs and keeps the employee informed about what the employer can and cannot do to support them, says Paler. Not all employees with mental health conditions are ready or able to return to the same job in the same capacity, so looking at a range of solutions or “pathways” can help support their ongoing employment. The interactive process requires this case-by-case analysis of exactly how an impairment impacts job performance and what specific accommodations may be effective.

An accommodation must ensure employees can work safely, without risk to themselves or others. As a healthcare organization, Sutter must also consider patient safety, adds Paler, which includes a wide range of variables. The accommodations analysis balances the goal of ongoing employment with the operational needs of the organization. In the end, accommodations are only reasonable if employees can work safely and effectively.

Parallel to accommodations, Sutter also provides other resources to employees to support ongoing employment. Sutter’s IDAM team works closely with their employee assistance program (EAP) and can connect employees to assistance in real time. Distressed employees can obtain immediate psychological telephone support through the EAP.

Another program for employees on leave, WellCare, links IDAM/workers’ compensation with an assigned EAP clinician to help employees manage the stressors inherent in being off work. WellCare partners with employees throughout their leave and further supports their successful return to work.

When a mental health matter co-exists with an on-the-job injury, Sutter works with all care providers to ensure the employee gets needed treatment, says Walsh, and to connect employees with EAP and other support systems.

Paler says this “whole person” approach, which shows the employer’s care and concern for their employees, has produced positive outcomes in any organization where she has implemented it.