How do you react as an employer when a normally stellar team member begins to withdraw and starts to have performance issues? What do you do if one of your staff members announces she will attend meetings only under specified conditions, among them excluding certain people? What are your options if someone uses up all of his family leave and wants more?

Accommodations for workplace disabilities — particularly for mental health-related issues — are a hot topic among Iowa employers, a reflection of today’s turbulent society. More discussion about accommodations is also a positive indication that employers are openly engaging in what has for years been a taboo topic.  

The keen interest in managing workplace accommodations was evident from a packed meeting room recently at the Meadows Events Center. About 300 people attended the Iowa Employment Conference on Oct. 23, which was the first of these twice-annual conferences to deal exclusively with mental health in the workplace. Two breakout sessions that I attended dealt with the “legal landmines” that employers must maneuver, and a second took a practical look at how employers can approach accommodations for mental health issues. 

As I arrived at the latter session, about 100 human resources professionals already filled every seat at rows of conference tables, with 15 to 20 more people standing or sitting cross-legged along the periphery until the Meadows provided us the accommodation of more chairs. 

Jo Ellen Whitney, an employment law attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm, quickly proved that her world of workplace accommodations is anything but boring. 

“Nobody ever calls me because it’s a happy, sunny day,” she said. “I get called when unpleasant things hit the fan.”  

In addition to avoiding fines from the federal government — an OSHA violation averages $13,000 — there’s a strong business case to be made for addressing mental health issues in the workplace. 

“If you look at the statistics, depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues cost the global economy about $1 trillion a year,” Whitney said. “They cost American businesses between 80 and $100 billion a year. There are even [apps] where you can go online and calculate the cost of depression in your workplace. … So clearly, it is a problem that people are thinking about and that we have issues with.” 

Here are a few takeaways that I gleaned as a non-HR professional: 

“First and foremost, every modification or accommodation you do is temporary. It is subject to change. Never promise anyone a permanent modification or a permanent accommodation, because it will come back to bite you, and you will have scars,” Whitney said. “That is particularly true when we’re talking about mental health, because mental health changes pretty rapidly and an accommodation that worked six months ago isn’t necessarily going to work in six months.”

Additionally: “You need to be clear in your communication that this is something that is subject to review, that we will continue to look at it and that we will assess this based not only on your needs, but on our business needs.” 

Whitney illustrated the kinds of challenges that hit her fan, among them a call she had just received about an employee who has several mental health issues who has periodic episodes that can last up to 10 days, during which she can’t have any customer or co-worker contact. 

How, or whether, the employer would be able to somehow accommodate that disability would be determined by working through several interactive discussions with the employee, Whitney said.

Employers also need to carefully consider how they engage employees. 

In one instance, an employee with a panic disorder wouldn’t keep an appointment to meet with the company’s human resources person, and after reaching an impasse after three attempts to meet, the company realized they needed to conduct the meetings via a chain of email messages. 

Whitney punctuated a lot of her stories with humor to drive home her point. My favorite: 

“When you’re working with your attorney, try to figure out the really important bits and tell them that first,” she said. 

“One of the things that’s happened to me a lot is that I can go 15 or 20 minutes in a conversation about how we’re going to do discipline or what we’re going to do, and in the last five seconds they say, ‘Oh, and she’s pregnant, she has depression and she’s dating the CEO.’”