Supporting employees with mental health conditions 

As we raise awareness for King County’s Suicide Awareness Prevention Month, it is important to remember that not all disabilities are visible. 

Among disabilities that are often not visible or as apparent are mental health conditions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about one in five American adults, or roughly 43.8 million adults, experience mental illness in a given year. Approximately 39% of employees in the U.S. workforce have a mental health condition. And, more than 50% of individuals with mental illness still avoid needed treatment. Untreated mental illness can result in other illnesses and behaviors, such as chronic pain and substance abuse, leading to further challenges for individuals experiencing mental illness and higher costs for employers. Regardless of culture, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, mental illness affects everyone, whether through our own experiences or the experiences of individuals we know. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an even greater impact on individuals. According to a CDC survey, almost 41% of respondents are struggling with mental health conditions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and measures put in place to contain it, including physical distancing and stay-at-home orders. Mental health risks of social distancing, isolation and quarantine have led to, among other things, increased fear, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, anger, frustration, irritability and stigma. Those who are particularly more vulnerable include older adults, individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions, and healthcare workers.

Employment is an essential part of our identity, well-being and health. Employment provides a sense of purpose and allows us to build connections. Building and fostering a work culture that promotes self-care and focuses on mental health as an important part of overall health and well-being is critical to building inclusion and providing support to employees. A key part of this focus is to provide employees who experience limitations or restrictions associated with a mental health condition with reasonable accommodations in the workplace to be able to perform their job duties productively and effectively. 

Yet employees with mental health conditions continue to face barriers when requesting reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Those barriers include:   

  • The employee is not willing to come forward with their conditions due to denial, shame and stigma 
  • Lack of supervisor knowledge to recognize and/or understand the impacts of mental health  
  • Difficulty knowing how permanent or temporary the symptoms are 
  • Discrimination or judgement against people with mental health conditions 
  • Lack of HR knowledge about how to accommodate  
  • Treatment providers do not document the health condition accurately, which results in inadequate accommodations 

King County is committed to providing reasonable accommodations to all its employees and applicants for employment to ensure that individuals with disabilities, including mental health conditions, enjoy equal access to all employment opportunities.  

Examples of reasonable accommodations that may be provided to employees with mental health conditions include the following: 

  • An employee with depression may benefit from noise cancelling headsets to help with concentration and focus. 
  • An employee coping with an anxiety disorder may need to have flexible and/or additional breaks built into the workday to step away when feeling overwhelmed. 
  • An employee with PTSD who experiences sleep problems due to their condition may need a flexible work schedule or later start time to help them cope with morning fatigue. 

These are just a few of the many examples of reasonable workplace accommodations King County has provided to employees with mental health conditions to stay at work or return to work. In addition, providing such accommodations leads to greater employee loyalty, increased employee retention, better employee morale, more positive employee relationships and higher productivity and lower costs.  Providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, both visible and hidden, contributes to the goal of building an inclusive workplace for all.  

This is one of the many ways we can support employees experiencing mental health conditions at King County. If you need assistance with accommodation in the workplace, contact your Human Resources representative, supervisor, or Disability Services staff at 206-263-9329 or email DisabilityServices@kingcounty.gov.