Depression is the single most prevalent disability in the United States. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that approximately 14.8 million American adults live with major depression, and 6.1 million adults have bipolar disorder. Many more experience moderate depression or are never diagnosed.
Depression may be common, but it is also the disability that many supervisors struggle with the most to understand and accommodate.
The Interactive Process for Depression
When engaging in the interactive process, I always suggest framing the conversation as a “brainstorming discussion.” This will make the discussion less intimidating for the employee, and will ensure that the employee’s supervisor comes in with an open mind. You will start by making a list of all of the tasks the employee is struggling with, and then collaboratively brainstorm solutions.
Questions to Ask
- What are the specific parts of the job you are having trouble with? (Get detailed information on work tasks from both the employee and the frontline supervisor; and make a list that you can work from. This list will help you structure the conversation and make sure you don’t neglect any area of the job.)
- What is the specific thing that is “getting in the way” for you?
- What are factors that make your symptoms worse or better?
- Are there certain times of the day when your disability has more of an effect?
- Is your depression affected by the seasons? Do things get worse in the winter? Are there certain times that are worse than others?
Keeping the Conversation Flowing
In my experience, employees with depression are sometimes unwilling to fully participate in the interactive process, and will respond to questions with responses such as “I’m just a bad employee.” and “Nothing you can do will ever help me.” It’s important to be understanding, but approach the discussion with a very matter-of-fact problem solving attitude. During these sorts of discussions I recommend saying: “You’re not alone in this. Twenty percent (20%) of people will deal with depression at some point in their lives – it can happen to anyone. Our job here is to work together to try to find accommodations that can help you in your job.” The more you can take the stigma out of talking about the disability, the more successful you will be in finding out what accommodation will truly help the employee.
Setting Clear Conduct Standards and Communication Expectations
Remember, the goal of the ADA is not to require employers to set lower expectations for persons with disabilities – the goal is to ensure equal opportunity in the workplace. You must hold all employees to the same standards, regardless of disability. Often, the real problems arise when supervisors fail to communicate concrete expectations to the employee and follow up if these standards aren’t met.
For example, when working with an employee with depression who is struggling with attendance and failing to call in, you could say “We understand that your disability changes, and isn’t always the same from day to day. There may be times when you need to take leave and we are willing to grant that as a reasonable accommodation to the extent we’re able, but no matter what, you are always responsible for communicating with us. If you are struggling and need to take leave, you are responsible for emailing or calling your supervisor before the workday begins. That is a conduct standard that we hold everyone to, regardless of disability.”
Effective Accommodations that May be Reasonable, Depending on the Nature of the Workplace
Modified Work Schedules:
- Example: Allowing an employee whose depression is a greater barrier in the morning hours to come in later and stay later in the day, working 10-7 rather than 8-5.
Reduced Work Schedules:
- Example: Changing an employee’s schedule from 40 hours per week to 30 hours per week.
- Example: One of the most successful accommodations I have ever arranged involved a mix of telework and office work. The employee, whose office job focused partially on Internet-based work and partially on traditional office tasks, had great difficulty getting to work in the morning, and had begun having attendance problems. We agreed on partial telework as an accommodation, allowing her to work from home from 9-11 and work in the office from 12-6. She was required to email her supervisor every morning and closely track her tasks during telework. The employee has been extremely productive with this arrangement.
- Example: an employee whose depression severely limits her ability to do her job to the extent that no other accommodation would be effective could be transferred into a position that is a better fit given her condition. For example, an employee who works in a rigidly-scheduled, high stress, deadline-focused job could be transferred into a job that lends itself to more flexible scheduling.
The Power of the “Trial Accommodation”
Often, both the supervisor and the employee will be unsure about whether a particular accommodation will work. The best tactic is to do a “trial run” of the accommodation for two weeks, with a meeting at the end of the two weeks to evaluate its effectiveness.
The Importance of Flexibility
It is important for supervisors to understand that, as with many psychiatric disabilities, depression is usually not static. Sometimes symptoms worsen or improve for a period of time, such as when an employee changes medication, and sometimes symptom changes are linked with the calendar year. For example, many people with depression experience worsened symptoms in the winter and improved symptoms in the summer.
Supervisors should know that this isn’t necessarily going to be a clear-cut, one-time exercise; the conversation may need to be revisited periodically as the need arises.
Amber Cheek, JD, is the Director of Accessibility and ADA Education at the University of Missouri.
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