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Dealing With Mental Illness in the Work Place

By: Drew M. Smith

In the workplace many things are taken for granted. Having a stable job, good co-workers a decent wage and safe working environment are among the things that an employee should expect from their work place. Due to increased levels of diagnosing of mental disorders, employers and employees must develop policies and procedures on how to deal with these disorders in the work place.

A diagnosis of a mental illness like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and even the autism spectrum disorders can cause friction in the workplace. In most states, employers cannot discriminate against an employee with a diagnosed mental illness, either through hiring the process or while they are employed with a company and must develop procedures to accommodate these employees in the work place.

It is when you have an employee that is acting unusual with no known or disclosed conditions that it becomes difficult in how to deal with an employee. Employers are not allowed to ask employees about mental illness; however, they must recognize certain behaviors in the workplace affect both the specific employee and their co-workers. As an employer you can only speculate the issue, however until you have a definitive request for accommodation from the employee, you can only address the issue with the employee if their condition impacts the productivity of the employee in office environment.

Some states, like New Jersey, recognize mental illness as a discriminatory class. This means an employer cannot deny the right to employ someone with a known mental illness.1 This could be problematic as in recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.7 percent suffer from some type of depression and 18 percent suffered some sort of anxiety disorder. The employee has every right to not disclose the issue but if they do they can expect some support or accommodation.2

One other issue relates to the changes in an employee’s behavior over time. In one case, a woman had worked at the company for twenty years and people respected her. Then her behavior changed to where she thought people were stalking her or spying on her. The director of her company placed her on leave to seek help from a physician. He speculated the woman had schizophrenia but without a proper diagnosis he was unable to do anything to accommodate her so it was an incredible risk on his part. The situation did not improve and eventually one of the employees felt threatened by her actions. She was placed on leave again and when her time under the FMLA expired she was terminated due to the belief the situation was not going to improve.3

As an employer there is a fine line when dealing with a delicate situation such a mental illness. The employee has a right to privacy and does not have to divulge a medical or mental condition. At the same time if you suspect a mental illness, you can’t simply fire them. You must provide an accommodation if possible in the least restrictive environment. Your attorney and your Human Resources person should be able to help in deciding that.


The above is not legal advice, merely an opinion about employee safety. Consult your attorney before proceeding with legal action.


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