The Pandemic and Worker Mental Illness

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Richard D. Alaniz, Partner at Alaniz Law & Associates

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 43.8 million people experience mental health issues in any given year. Approximately 10 million experience a “serious mental illness.” The estimated economic cost from mental illness was estimated to be more than $100 billion per year.

Those circumstances prevailed before the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down. With business lockdowns, travel restrictions, restrictions on everyday interactions with one another, the economy suffered massive job losses. We may not see the full effects of the pandemic-related changes on our collective mental health for some time. The increasing availability of effective vaccines has put us on a slow path to ending the pandemic, but the end is still months away. We have already begun to hear about the psychological impact of months of school closures on many school-aged children. A recent report cited a 31% increase in mental health visits to emergency rooms among 12 to 17-year-olds. There finally appears to be some limited progress on returning the children to the schoolroom. Unfortunately, the mental health issues likely precipitated by school closures could have long term effects.

Many parents have had to confront perhaps even more stressful circumstances. In addition to caregiving difficulties, parents have had to deal with anxiety over possible exposure to COVID-19 at work, about the future of their jobs, and their ability to provide for their families.

Workers in essential and non-essential industries alike have been laid off by the millions. The unemployment rate is currently 6.3%, an improvement from the high of 14.7% in April 2020, but still approximately twice the pre-pandemic unemployment rate, when employers in many industries were desperately seeking additional employees. Employees in most industries were benefiting as employers increased wages to attract applicants.

The impact of the sudden reversal of fortunes on the mental health and well-being of many affected workers has been devastating. Many of the millions laid off will have no job to return to when the pandemic ends, with their employers forced to close their doors permanently. These laid off employees have been forced to provide for their families only a fraction of what they earned before, provided through unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. If more than 40 million people develop mental health issues under normal conditions, what can be expected from these stressful circumstances?

Mental health conditions number in the hundreds and while it is near impossible to speculate when and what specific mental illness may manifest itself, but given what workers have endured for the past year, it would seem that some form of depression would result for many. In fact, even without the trauma of a pandemic, major depression is the single most common mental health illness in the U.S.

Innumerable symptoms of conditions classified as mental illness could impact an employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of their job. In many cases the illness manifests itself in conduct, behavior, or performance issues that affect co-workers, as well. Given the likelihood that such issues may become more prevalent because of the pandemic, employers need to be more vigilant of what is occurring in their workplace.

Employers often become aware that an employee may be suffering from a mental condition through reports from fellow employees. In most cases, some problem behavior or incident triggers concern among co-workers. A major change in personality, argumentative behavior, lack of engagement with others, or other uncharacteristic conduct. Sometimes it is the employee’s supervisor that becomes aware of a problem in responding to a complaint about an incident involving the employee. Given that such mental health issues are almost always protected disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, an employer must proceed cautiously in addressing these issues. Medical privacy rules similarly require discretion.

The EEOC has stringent standards regarding what and when an employer may ask about an employee’s mental health. The four circumstances under which an employer may inquire into an employee’s mental health condition are the following: 1) After a job offer has been extended, assuming all applicants in a given job category are asked for the same medical information; 2) When an employee has requested a reasonable accommodation; 3) When the employer is engaging in affirmative action regarding persons with disabilities; and 4) When the employer has objective evidence that an employee is unable to perform their job or poses a safety risk because of their condition. Problem workplace conduct that implicates a possible mental health issue would likely satisfy this last criteria.  

Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, employers must show empathy and make available professional support and resources for employees suffering from mental health issues. The goal is to help them address their condition and hopefully resume contributing to their own success and by extension, the company’s success.

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