The 21st century workplace can be challenging for employers and employees alike. Employers have to constantly be aware of workplace regulations, as well as potential harassment and legal situations. Employees must be cautious of their words and actions, and cognizant of their surroundings, co-workers, and workplace policies at all times. It is in this tension-filled culture that mental health discrimination becomes a matter of concern, along with racial discrimination, sexual harassment, age discrimination, religious discrimination, and pregnancy discrimination to name a few. In a typical 21st century American company, mental health discrimination can adversely affect workplace relationships and the culture of a company.
Defining Disability Discrimination
So, what is mental health discrimination? The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that a person with a medical disability is defined by one of three characteristics. First, "A person may be disabled if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning)." The second major factor that qualifies someone as having a medical disability is whether or not a person has a history of a disability (as is the case with cancer patients who previously were in remission). The last factor that defines someone as having a disability according to the EEOC is if a person "is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if he does not have such an impairment)." These definitions are broad in nature, and can include physical and mental conditions related to health and disability.
Mental Health Discrimination
Mental health discrimination occurs in the workplace when an employee is treated unfairly because of his or her disability (in this case, the mental health disorder). According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, qualified individuals are protected from employment discrimination. This can include recruitment, pay, hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, benefits, job assignments, training opportunities, and all other employment-related activities. Mental health discrimination is unlawful in all states under the ADA. Employers are required to abide by the laws in place to protect employees from unfair employment-related actions and decisions.
Employer and Employee Responsibility
Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to all employees who are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employers are not required to provide an accommodation that would create an undue hardship, which would be unnecessarily costly, extensive or disruptive to the organization. Employees are required to notify their employer of reasonable accommodations needed or working condition restrictions due to a medical condition. This includes mental health concerns. The ADA also requires that employers post notifications of the law and the proper steps to take in order to protect employees with mental health disabilities.
Effects of Mental Health Discrimination in the Workplace
The effects of mental health discrimination in the workplace vary based on the individual person and their specific disability. Discrimination of any kind can create a potentially toxic work environment, which then affects co-workers, productivity, and efficiency of the organization. Mental health discrimination is something that not only affects the individual's work life, but can also have a more damaging effect on their recovery. For instance, if the workplace discrimination affects the work productivity of an employee, and then the employer or manager is discriminatory towards that employee, the mental effects on the individual can influence their stability and cause more work-related stress and further mental health problems. It is imperative that employers are aware of the legal regulations and policies, and that procedures are followed in accordance with the EEOC and ADA.
Jennifer Burton is a human resources professional based in California. She holds an M.A. in American studies from California State University, Fullerton.