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How Can You Accommodate an Employee Who's Depressed?

Employers often struggle to manage employees who are experiencing depression. One of the most common questions they ask is how to accommodate an employee who shows signs of being depressed.

What Employers Are Getting Right

On one hand, it’s great to hear this question, because it means the employer is doing some things right:

  • They are recognizing the employee has a medical condition that’s covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), and so requires reasonable accommodation.
  • They aren’t seeing the employee’s behavior as merely a sign of performance issues and aren’t using progressive discipline to manage the situation.
  • They are trying to support the employee through a difficult time.
  • They aren’t stigmatizing the employee or avoiding the challenging topic of depression in the workplace.
  • They are likely working to foster a culture of openness and supporting employees in seeking help for issues that may impact their work performance.

Where Employers Appear Confused

On the other hand, the question shows a basic confusion about behavioral health conditions, and how employers can accommodate the employees living with them.

The reality is that employers don’t accommodate conditions, such as depression or anxiety. They accommodate employees who have specific limitations and restrictions related to a medical condition.

Solutions That Fit the Individual

One person with depression may struggle to concentrate. This challenge could limit the ability to cope with distractions in the workplace. To address the situation, the employer may move the employee to a quieter area within the office. Another course might be to let the employee wear noise-canceling headphones while working.

Another person may experience sleep disturbance that makes it hard to arrive at work on time in the morning. In some cases, the employer could allow the employee to change shifts to a later start, making it easier for the employee to get enough rest before coming in.

Yet another person may contend with suicidal thoughts and impulses requiring inpatient hospitalization. In this case, leave may be the only reasonable accommodation available.

Adjusting Your Perspective

Here’s another way to think about it: No medical condition is, in and of itself, disabling. Instead, medical conditions cause specific symptoms that may limit or restrict the person’s ability to perform particular work-related tasks. Accommodations are merely adjustments to the particular work setting or processes that allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their job, despite the limitations or restrictions caused by their symptoms.

From this perspective, it may be easier to understand that the accommodations an individual employee needs are specific to the employee’s unique functional limitations — and that those limitations are a reflection of the symptoms that person is experiencing. It may seem clichéd, but this is truly a situation in which one size does not fit all.

This confusion isn’t just an issue with behavioral health conditions. Yet it happens much less with medical (non-behavioral) problems. If an employee requires an accommodation because of a broken leg, most employers realize the accommodation will be different if the employee is using a walker versus a wheelchair while they recover.

Designing the Right Accommodations

What's the key to designing accommodations for an employee who is dealing with depression? Explore the barriers they experience in doing the work. Learn what limitations and restrictions are a consequence of the condition. Then identify changes or equipment that can remove those barriers.

The process must start with input from the employee and the treating provider. There can’t be any set preconceptions about what helps someone who’s depressed to do the work. The accommodations must be individualized, respecting the employee’s uniqueness and maintaining the person’s dignity. These modifications must also address the employee’s particular limitations and restrictions.

Once that discussion has begun, it’s easier to develop and put in place accommodations that make sense for the situation. It may take some creative thinking or research into strategies for coping with specific behavioral limitations and restrictions,1 but you’ll start a partnership that can help a valued employee continue to contribute. You’ll also demonstrate your commitment to an equitable workplace.


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