As mental health crisis grows, leave requests are on the rise

As Mental Health Awareness Month nears a close, timely new research suggests that the growing mental health crisis is driving up employee leaves of absences—and creating new challenges for HR leaders.

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In its 11th year, the Littler Annual Employer Survey featured input from 515 in-house lawyers, C-suite executives and HR professionals across the U.S. Among key findings, 65% of respondents report receiving an increase in requests for disability accommodations and leaves of absence related to mental health conditions/issues since the start of 2022. In fact, more employers saw increase requests about mental health than about non-COVID physical health conditions and long COVID.

According to Littler Shareholder Devjani Mishra, some of the mental health accommodation and leave requests “may be based on new conditions that stem from the disruption of the past few years, as so many individuals had their support systems challenged or suffered real losses, including bereavement, during the pandemic.”

Mishra adds that others may relate to pre-existing mental health conditions; employees may be becoming less reluctant to raise these issues than in prior years, or may be more aware of the process for seeking an accommodation.

Littler’s Devjani Mishra

Still others, she explains, may be tied to the continuing push for more on-site work, as employees who have been working remotely are asked to re-adapt to working alongside others. At the same time, the widespread use of remote work may mean both that employers are out of practice in dealing with accommodation requests and that courts may be applying new perspectives to whether remote work or other accommodations are reasonable.

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“Just as with physical disabilities, it is important for employers to consider mental health-based requests case-by-case,” Mishra says, adding that HR can help mitigate problems by ensuring the essential functions of a given job have been well-defined. And, if an issue arises, engage the requesting employee in an interactive process to truly understand what the person’s limitations are and whether reasonable adjustments can be made.

“Often, the desired accommodation may involve something that an employer is already doing, like providing detailed job descriptions and performance goals or regular structured feedback,” Mishra says.

See also: 8 ways HR leaders can overcome burnout

Mental health should remain important even if worker is remote

And if employers plan to continue hybrid or remote work in the future, “it is important to ensure that employees with accommodations are not pushed ‘out of sight and out of mind,’ but remain valued colleagues.”

That’s particularly relevant, given that more than 70% of employers surveyed have workforces operating on a hybrid schedule.

“In an environment where some hybrid work is likely to remain the norm, employers need to pivot away from crisis management and toward intentional remote work structures that can be broadly applied and consistently enforced,” Mishra says. “Given the current spotlight on equity, transparency and employee wellbeing, company leaders need to develop and communicate their remote work policies clearly and consistently to promote employee engagement and satisfaction.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].