Mental Illness in the Workplace

By Stephen M. Pfeiffer, Ph.D.

According to a

2012 report

by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, almost 46 million adult Americans experienced a diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder in 2011. When these mental, behavioral and emotional disorders cause people ongoing stress and affect their ability to function, we refer to it as mental illness. Mental illness may include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Mental illness often causes problems in people’s everyday lives, especially at the workplace.

Although we live in times when society has a better understanding of mental illness than in the past, according to an article in the

San Jose Mercury News, studies

show that people with mental illness still have the highest rates of unemployment of all disabled, and many U.S. employers are unwilling to hire someone who has past psychiatric history or is undergoing treatment for mental illness, even though it is against state and federal laws to discriminate against people with mental illness in the workplace and in hiring.

This leads to the question of whether people with mental illnesses should disclose their mental illness to prospective employers. According to the

Coming Out Proud manual

, disclosing a mental illness can be risky, but it also creates a sense of empowerment and enhances self-confidence, which helps those with mental illness achieve professional goals. An attorney who specializes in employment discrimination recommends in the

Mercury News

article that people with mental illnesses should wait until after they’re hired to disclose their illness.

Unfortunately, many employers, managers and supervisors don’t fully understand mental illness. They may get frustrated by valuable workers who often seem to lack focus or appear not to work well with others, but they don’t understand the circumstances or how to address the subject. The law, however, requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to an employee with mental illness who can perform the job. Such accommodations might include a quiet workspace and flexible hours. Learning how to accommodate mental illness in the workplace is not only beneficial to those who have mental illness, it’s beneficial to the bottom line: According to the

Center for Disease Control

, depression costs employers $44 billion a year in lost workdays.

In addition to familiarizing themselves with the law, there are other measures employers can take to make the work environment more accommodating for those with mental illness:

  • Provide access to Employment Assistance Programs (EAPs). These programs help employees deal with stress and emotional and psychiatric problems.
  • Visit theRight Direction website, which provides businesses with strategies to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace.
  • Make sure company’s insurance carrier provides satisfactory mental health coverage.
  • Implement workplace policies that help employees maintain a health work-life balance, and work with employees with mental illness to create disability and return-to-work strategies.
To explore strategies to effectively accommodate mental illness in the workplace and act in accordance with the law, consider consulting with a mental professional. For more information on relationship counseling at work, please feel free to reach out to me at or at my website,