Babylon Town employees on a "wellness walk" around the pond...

Babylon Town employees on a "wellness walk" around the pond at Babylon Town Hall in Lindenhurst on Tuesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

Employers on Long Island and around the country are facing a mental health crisis in the workplace, with rising concerns over the impact of burned-out employees top of mind.

Employment lawyer Jessica Moller said many of the calls she gets from companies on accommodating disabled employees are now focused on workers seeking accommodations for their mental health needs.

“When I get called, it’s much more common that the issue involves a mental health condition,” said Moller, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Garden City. When it comes to accommodating physical disabilities, HR professionals likely feel more qualified to handle those issues on their own, she said, whereas mental health accommodations may be newer territory for some.

Experts say a mentally well workforce is a productive workforce, and taking proactive steps to develop a workplace culture that recognizes the importance of mental health is imperative in a competitive hiring market.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Employers are paying increasing attention to workers' mental health.
  • Many companies are adding mental health resources and services for employees.
  • In addition to those initiatives, it's important for employers to address underlying stressors, such as workloads that are too high, experts say.

But some warn that simply offering a wellness program or mental health resource like an employee assistance program without addressing core issues like untenable workloads can lead workers to feel employers are just papering over major workplace stressors.

While the effects of workplace mental health initiatives can be hard to measure, the impact of poor mental health on job performance is tangible.

Anxiety and depression account for an estimated 12 billion lost work days each year at a global cost of $1 trillion in productivity, according to the World Health Organization.

More than 50% of U.S. workers said they had felt burned out from their job over the last two weeks, according to 2021 survey data from the Society for Human Resource Professionals. In 2023 surveys, the HR trade organization found that 63% of workers believed resources on the job would improve their mental health.

“I think over the past few years this has gotten more attention paid to it largely as a result of the pandemic and the rise of mental health-related issues that came with that,” Moller said. “There’s more of an appreciation of what people are going through.”

Attorney Jessica Moller, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King,...

Attorney Jessica Moller, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King, says she is getting more calls from employers on how to deal with workers who ask for mental health accommodations. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Last year, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General released its first report on mental health in the workplace in response to increased levels of concern following the pandemic.

In a 2021 survey of 1,500 adult workers cited in the report, 76% of U.S. workers said they had experienced at least one symptom of a mental health condition, up 17 percentage points from 2019.

Employers' legal obligations

Employers who have a disability disclosed to them by an employee are legally required to engage in a constructive conversation about what accommodations can be made.

The mandate, as outlined in state and federal law, is for employers to take reasonable actions that permit an employee to perform the activities needed for the job, including making the worksite accessible, restructuring the job if needed or able, and modifying work schedules if feasible.

“That could be a little bit trickier in terms of dealing with a mental health issue,” Moller said. “Not only getting the substantiation that there is a condition, but how to go about accommodating.”

Since 2020, businesses have shown a much greater desire to provide employees with mental health resources, particularly surrounding substance abuse issues, said Errol Rodriguez, a clinical psychologist and assistant dean of Adelphi University’s master’s in psychology program.

“Businesses are more and more inclined to have conversations about mental health wellness,” he said.

Errol Rodriguez, program director of Adelphi's master's in psychology program,...

Errol Rodriguez, program director of Adelphi's master's in psychology program, says younger workers have been pushing for more mental health awareness. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Through his own practice, Rodriguez said he’s seen organizations become more willing to offer education and resources on mental health wellness in recent years. And while those initiatives were driven by the pandemic, younger workers have also played a major role.

“It’s not just the pandemic, although the pandemic changed the conversation,” he said. “Certainly, the millennial group and Gen Z has really been pushing, I believe, for more mental health awareness on jobs and trying to change the culture climate at different institutions.”

What mental health resources look like on the job can vary from standard employee assistance programs offering confidential counseling to more proactive educational workshops, or even the offering of guided meditation and mindfulness training.

But Rodriguez said what is more important than the offerings themselves is the message employers send to workers about accessing those supports.

“It’s nice to have these things, but I think companies have to do more than offer it,” he said. Organization leaders must do more to “connect the dots” between what they offer or say and what they do, he said.

“They’ll say we want our staff and teams to be well functioning, and our people to feel more satisfied, but employees also have to work until midnight five days a week and the workload is just the same.”

Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation, the charitable arm of the HR organization, said business leaders must be cognizant of the conditions on the ground for their employees.

“It behooves us ... to really understand our employees and understand where they’re coming from,” Safstrom said.

Additionally, Safstrom said it is important for employers to be honest about workloads and the overall stressors of the job itself to see if there are ways working conditions can be improved.

“You can offer support and apps and messages from the top. Free food in the office, well-being walks, those kinds of things,” she said. “But then there are these other serious issues going on like unrealistic workloads."

Without recognizing the total picture, employers run the risk of implementing wellness programs that yield little in terms of employee satisfaction. 

“There are Band-Aids being applied on the top but there are innate challenges that have gone unaddressed or unattended to,” Safstrom said. Without buy-in from the C-suite, mental health initiatives “can look a little bit like window dressing,” and risk upsetting employees more.

Workers in high-stress roles

For some kinds of work, like the kind of social services provided by the Family & Children’s Association of Garden City, a focus on employees' mental health is paramount.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of the nonprofit, which provides substance abuse and mental health services to vulnerable Long Islanders, said in order for his employees to do their best supporting others, there has to be a recognition of their own mental well-being.

Jeffrey Reynolds, right, CEO of the Family & Children’s Association, meets...

Jeffrey Reynolds, right, CEO of the Family & Children’s Association, meets with his assistant vice presidents. Credit: Dawn McCormick

“You better take care of the people you have,” Reynolds said. “Management's job is to care for the staff. If you’re not in tune with that … it’s twice as bad because this is what we do. If we don’t, it’s the ultimate in hypocrisy.”

At Allied Physicians Group, responding to patients' needs, both mental as well as physical, has been a given. But the Melville-based organization has shifted in recent years to deal with the outbreak of burnout in the medical field.

“Not until a year ago did we officially appoint a chief wellness officer,” said Jennifer Shaer, who now holds the post at the doctor group, which has approximately 350 employees on Long Island out of a total 500. 

Before then, Shaer said the organization’s approach to workplace performance issues was fairly standard, focusing on what an employee did wrong. Now, she said, she tries to reframe those discussions into what could be causing the issue.

“I would always come back to my medical roots and ask, ‘But why is this doctor doing this? Doctors don’t normally not want to sign their charts,’ ” she said. “That’s sort of the background on how we changed the philosophy from disciplining on the outputs as opposed to looking at the root cause,” she said.

In her new role, Shaer said her focus is on making sure that company changes take into account potential impacts on employees’ stress levels. The group also has a wellness committee to discuss issues of employee health, organize fitness initiatives, and provide yoga and meditation offerings.

“Supporting well-being makes good business sense,” she said. “When doctors or employees are supported and feel well it creates the environment for people to bring their best selves to work. … Supporting well-being is a win-win-win.”

Stigma still a hurdle

A major stumbling block to addressing the mental health needs of employees continues to be stigma.

Adelphi’s Rodriguez said that for many workers, social pressures, be they cultural or specific to their line of work, can make opening up about important work-impacting issues difficult. A major concern for many stems from potential blowback.

“The big one is some form of 'If I come forward and say, hey, I’ve been struggling a little bit,’ will that be used against you?” he said.

The only surefire way of addressing that stigma, Rodriguez said, is to face it head on.

“You have to take a stand against stigma, and it has to be an overt stand,” he said.

For some managers, being candid about their own struggles has proven to be effective in spreading that message.

In 2015, Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer suffered what he called a major “panic attack,” one that brought his day-to-day life as a public figure to a screeching halt. As supervisor at the time, Schaffer said he was under a lot of work-related pressure.  

“There were two months where I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t eat,” Schaffer recalled. “When I went through that, I lost 30 pounds. I looked drawn and I explained to people that I’m having this issue and it’s about my mental health.”

Schaffer said the episode led him to medication, a regular course of talk therapy, and a routine that brings him to the gym four days a week. All of which have put him “back in order,” and been incredibly beneficial to his professional and personal life, he said.

Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, left, speaks to town employees...

Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, left, speaks to town employees before a wellness walk around the pond at Babylon Town Hall in Lindenhurst. Credit: Barry Sloan

Being public about his issues, while questioned by some early on, has been a source of strength, he said.

“It actually made me feel better when I spoke publicly about it because of how much of a public figure I am,” he said. “A part of me getting better is me talking to other people about it. It was part of my own therapy.”

His experience has affected the way the town treats mental health concerns of its employees.

Over the last year and a half, Schaffer said the town has put more emphasis on mental health offerings, including using workplace health care provider Radish Health to offer therapy options for workers.

The town provides employees two hours a week to utilize those services, in addition to offering regular yoga and mindfulness walks.

And while it can be hard to track the impact of those programs, Schaffer said there’s a difference.

“We’re starting to see the results of a happier, more productive workforce,” he said. “Our complaints are down from residents about interactions with town employees.

“I can see the difference in their disposition and personality,” he said.

Does a mental health condition provide workplace protections?

Mental health conditions can fall under the broad category of disability, which is protected under the law.

“It might not be viewed as something as common ... as a physical disability, but it absolutely will have the same level of obligations and protections as a physical disability,” said attorney Jessica Moller of Bond, Schoeneck & King in Garden City.

Are employers required to accommodate workers with a mental health condition?

 "The law requires you to provide reasonable accommodations to that person,” Moller said.

 What's reasonable depends largely on the ways a mental health condition impacts an individual's ability to perform their essential job functions. While the law requires employers to engage in an interactive process with a worker who has disclosed their mental health disability and is seeking accommodations, it does not guarantee that an accommodation can be granted.

If no reasonable accommodation can be made that won’t place an undue burden on the employer or prevent the essential functions of the job from being done, an employer may deny a request and ultimately terminate an employee who is unable to perform the job.

What are examples of mental health accommodations?

  • Allowing a worker with extreme anxiety of crowds to start and end their shift later to avoid crowded rush-hour trains.
  • Permitting an employee with sensory issues to wear noise canceling headphones on the job.
  • Granting an employee with severe social anxiety the ability to work remotely or with a hybrid arrangement.

How should employers approach conversations about mental health with employees?

Employers should avoid making assumptions regarding an employee’s mental health status, but checking in is OK.

It can be as simple as saying "Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it going?” said psychologist Errol Rodriguez, an assistant dean at Adelphi. That can open the door for employees to express their situation then or in the future. “I like to add, ‘If anything is coming up or you feel anything that’s pressuring you, you know where I am,” Rodriguez said.

What should an employer avoid when dealing with a worker’s mental health concerns?

“You should absolutely never make a judgment based on your preconceived notions, on what somebody can or can’t do as the result of a mental health condition,” Moller said. “I see people do that and it creates problems and legal liabilities.”

Moller said employers shouldn't avoid the conversation around mental health. “If an employee comes to you and says they have ‘X’ condition and they ask for an accommodation, even if the employer thinks there is no way they can do this, they still need to engage in a discussion,” she said.

Correction: The last name of Jennifer Shaer, chief wellness officer at Allied Physicians Group, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. 

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