ADA Guidelines for Mental Health: What You Need to Know as a Small Business Owner

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Executive Summary

🎉 Tillful is now part of Nav! As a business leader, you need to know the facts about ADA guidelines for mental health conditions. Here's a handy guide to making reasonable accommodations that enable people with psychiatric disabilities to perform their job duties. We've also included an extra credit section on how to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.

Disclaimer: Our first priority is giving you the best financial advice for your business. Tillful may receive compensation from our partners, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions or recommendations in the content on our website. Editorial note

ADA Guidelines for Mental Health: What Small Business Owners Should Know

As a small business owner, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is essential to creating a positive work environment. In addition to physical disabilities, the ADA makes provisions for mental health conditions. Your small business must follow guidelines for protecting employees’ mental health in order to achieve ADA compliance. 

In any given month, about 18% of American workers report having a mental health condition, according to the ADA National Network. Psychological conditions are one of the most common categories of ADA-covered disabilities, and leaders will have to address team members’ needs. 

The gist: U.S. employers are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide accommodations that facilitate success for employees with mental health conditions. Here’s what to know:

What is the ADA? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a federal civil rights law that effectively enables people with disabilities to participate equally in activities common to everyday life. Signed into law in 1990, the ADA’s intent is to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities, regardless of disability. ADA accessibility means employees can perform their job with certain changes to the work environment, often referred to as “reasonable accommodation.”

Changes to the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act) went into effect January 1, 2009. ADA federal regulations apply to mental health conditions as well as physical conditions. The term “psychiatric disability” usually refers to impairments covered under the ADA. 

Although the ADA doesn’t explicitly list all the disorders that may be covered, it defines a disability as any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”. Mental conditions covered by the ADA include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and related conditions

Symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more may fall under the ADA’s protection. 

Following ADA guidelines as a small business owner

Pro tip: Managing mental health in your workplace is a preventative measure. According to Lattice Hudson, founder of Lattice & Co, “Engage younger workers before health risks or habits develop into chronic diseases.” By preventing crises, you’re taking a long-term approach to the success of your business (and that of your employees)!

The ADA prohibits any discrimination on the basis of psychiatric disability. Therefore, as a small business owner, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the ADA’s guidelines and follow them closely. Check the homepage for more detailed guidelines on ADA compliance.  

Individuals with mental conditions have two basic rights in the workplace: 1) the right to privacy regarding their condition and 2) the right to accommodations that won’t cause undue hardship to an employer. 

Privacy rights mean that potential and current employees may choose not to disclose a psychiatric disability. However, if an employee seeks accommodations, employers can require disclosure and medical documentation of the disability. Without documentation of medical care for the mental health condition, an employer won’t know how to follow ADA regulations.

When considering the hiring process, ADA guidelines dictate that employers cannot withdraw a job offer following a medical exam that reveals a mental disorder. The exception to this is if one’s psychiatric disability would prevent them from performing essential job functions. In this case and all cases, the employee must voluntarily disclose the condition (employers can never force disclosure).

One unique circumstance exists for federal contractors. You must “invite applicants and employees to voluntarily self-disclose a disability.” This helps track your efforts to provide accessibility for all regardless of disability.

Even when a disability is disclosed to the employer, the employer must not share that information with other employees or managers. 

“Prioritizing mental health practices enables us to create a workplace where employees feel safe and appreciated. That is worth it, even if it doesn’t earn us an extra dime.” - Jaymee Messler, CEO of The Gaming Society

Examples of accommodations employers may need to provide to achieve ADA compliance

For small business owners, there are several types of accommodations you may need to implement for people with mental disabilities. 

  • Accommodations for anxiety: Employees with anxiety-related disorders may request accommodations such as an option to work remotely all or part of the time, the option to use earphones to block out noise, a quieter work environment, or a manager with a different leadership style. 
  • Medicine-related accommodations: These may include providing sufficient breaks to the employee for taking medication throughout the workday or flexibility to schedule appointments for medical care.  
  • Concentration-related accommodations: For employees with difficulty concentrating, accessibility may mean monitoring tasks for the purpose of helping the employee discover focus patterns, giving more frequent deadline reminders, allowing them to work remotely, or offering frequent short breaks. 

Although these types of accommodations may not seem as obvious as physical accommodations (like removing architectural barriers or updating existing facilities), mental health accommodations are no less important. Accessibility guidelines can apply to those with psychiatric disorders as well as physical limitations. 

Want to take it a step further? Be proactive with employee mental health care. Here’s a real-world example: DeskTime, a time tracking app software company, offers employees an additional paid day off each month for any health-related reason, including mental health. Chief operating officer Toms Blodnieks says, “It's much harder for our minds, brains, and emotions to live in the 21st century. Everyone needs to understand that it is important to help their employees feel good so they can work and be happy.”

Assistance small business owners can offer to promote mental health

Small business owners desire to create a healthy work environment, and that involves building trust and respect for each employee. 

Those with mental disabilities must not be made to feel less than other employees. At the same time, employers must work to provide accessibility so that all employees are able to do their best work. 

So what can you do as an employer?

You can take steps to ensure your workplace is not only ADA-compliant, but comfortable and safe for all employees. Start here:

  • Ensure your employees know their rights. This can be done during onboarding and/or on an ongoing basis.
  • Address unreasonable deadlines and overwork.
  • Respectfully handle accommodation requests.
  • Prevent bullying or harassment in the workplace.
  • Promote a transparent environment that welcomes honesty and effective communication.

Let your employees know they have the right to privacy and to voluntarily self-disclose any mental disabilities. This benefits everyone, as self-disclosure can lead to accommodations that prevent performance from suffering. 

As a business owner, whenever employees inform you of psychiatric disabilities, guard their privacy and listen carefully to their requested accommodations. 

Leaders can also support the mental health of employees by preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace. Everyone, regardless of seniority in the company, should be treated with the same level of respect. 

Supervisors and anyone working with disabled workers may need additional training to comply with accommodations. For instance, a manager may have a strict “no-headphones” policy, but will need to adjust that for an employee with concentration difficulties. You can keep other team members in the loop without disclosing personal information. By clearly communicating to all employees they should feel safe to seek accommodations for reported or diagnosed mental health conditions, you create a more understanding work environment.

Small business owners can take a number of steps to promote employee well-being. This benefits everyone within the company, not only those with a documented mental illness. Encourage employees to leave the office on time, to take earned vacations, and to use other methods of self-care to prevent burnout. 

As the CDC notes, employers are in an optimal place to influence employees’ mental health: they may offer incentives to reinforce healthy behaviors and even analyze data to evaluate effectiveness of health initiatives. 

These are some suggested initiatives you might take as a small business owner to improve mental health:

  • Distribute educational materials about mental health to employees.
  • Offer free or subsidized mental health screenings.
  • Include mental health treatments in employee health plans.
  • Hold workshops or seminars on mental health topics as well as trainings on mindfulness, meditation, or other stress management techniques.
  • Train managers to recognize signs of mental health disorders and encourage employees to seek help.

Last word on how to create an inclusive environment based on ADA guidelines

Business leaders: Know the facts about ADA guidelines for mental health conditions. Then, make reasonable accommodations that enable people with psychiatric disabilities to perform their job duties. Small business owners can educate themselves to create an inclusive and welcoming, ADA-compliant work environment.

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About the author

Rachel Curry

Written by Rachel Curry

Rachel Curry is a freelance finance and investing writer living in Pennsylvania. She wants to act as a bridge connecting the world to the information they need to feel better, be better, and make this planet a better place to live.

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