Sick Days for Mental Health

The mental health situation in our country is baffling, even this business attorney Tulsa will admit. I teach as Introduction to Public Speaking at a local community college. For the final one semester, some students chose to answer a question regarding what steps should be taken to improve mental health care in the United States. The statistics I heard were staggering. One in five Americans have a mental illness. One in eight have a mental illness and do not know they have it. The statistics on suicide were mind blowing. Over 200,000 people a year kill themselves. We really need to do something about mental health care in this country.

As a business owner, whether you know it or not, you most likely have employees who suffer from a mental illness, which is why you should have an business attorney Tulsa update you on the things mentioned below. Your knowledge of the severity of the illness most likely turns on how properly the person is managing his/her symptoms with proper diet, exercise, sunlight, meditation, medication, therapy/counseling, and the like.

But let’s say you come to work one day and it is clear that someone is not acting like his- or herself. Maybe they lost a family member recently but have not yet recovered. Maybe someone in their family committed suicide. Maybe they found out their spouse/significant other is cheating on them. As a business owner with customers from the general public observing your employees, what do you do?

The question has often come up about employees using sick days for mental health issues. Let this business attorney Tulsa start with this. Our medical science has not yet figured out a way to provide objective diagnostic tests for mental illnesses. What I mean by that is we can not take a MRI of the brain and point to a specific spot to say that’s depression. We do know that a person who has depression has a brain that looks differently, but there is no objective way of confirming this. Most of the tests for mental health issues consist of elaborate questionnaires with results that show mild to debilitating mental health problems.

So what do you do when an employee asks if they can take a sick day for a mental health condition? Here is how I as a business attorney Tulsa recommend you handle the situation.

First, as a general practice, I OVERWHELMINGLY suggest that you allow an employee to use his/her sick time for mental health concerns. Let this business attorney Tulsa tell you that this has a variety of benefits for you and your employees. First, it puts you at the head of the crowd as many businesses are silent on this issue at the moment. Second, it shows your employees and the general public that you care about the well-being of your employees. Third, it protects your customers from seeing a sick person at work.
Second, I recommend using a standard response to the employee who confesses this to you. I would say something like, “I am sorry you are struggling and not feeling well. I hope you get better soon.” Whatever you say, do not specifically inquire into whatever it is that is causing the person to have aggravated symptoms that particular day. It could be deeply personal, such as an assault type situation, and the person may already feel delicately exposed. You do not want to enhance that exposure with an inquiry into whatever event triggered this employee’s symptoms.

Third, if you do not have verified knowledge that your employee has a mental health condition, seek a doctor’s note within a reasonable amount of time. I as a business attorney Tulsa would not tell the employee they need to get a doctor’s note for whenever they return to work. Some forms of depression can be so severe that someone literally cannot get out of bed. You do not want to impose a burden on the employee that seems insurmountable if they are truly suffering. I would make a rule that the employee must provide a doctor’s note within a week of their date of return. This should provide sufficient time for them to obtain this information. Plus, providing a doctor’s note for a mental health sick day further legitimizes your operation as most companies requires doctor’s notes for a physical health sick day.

Fourth, make sure to treat this information confidentially. This is an obvious no-brainer as HIPAA laws preclude discussing any health information. I would simply document the employee’s file that they used a sick day and nothing more. I would not distinguish the sick day from a mental health sick day as opposed to a physical health sick day. Remember, this employee chose to be transparent with you when he/she did not have to. Respect the employee’s wishes by discreetly protecting this delicate information.

Finally, when the employee returns to work, do not treat the employee any differently. I believe general statements like, “I hope you are feeling better” are perfectly appropriate. I would not ask for details of any nature. If the employee wishes to speak to you further, make sure you are in an office with another person present to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

If other employees somehow find out about the mental health sick day, make sure you avoid any harassing remarks. You do not want the employee who took the sick day to come back to work only to find whispers about how “he’s crazy” or “she must be off her meds.” Remember that type of behavior is harassment and can subject you to liability if you do not take affirmative steps to address it.

Always remember that some of the most talented individuals you will ever meet have mental illnesses. I have mental illnesses. My family has a history of mental illnesses and I inherited some of that. I have anxiety and PTSD. I will most likely always have anxiety and PTSD. Despite this, I am a business attorney Tulsa, a college professor, and an author. Like with any other health condition, you have to manage your symptoms and engage in self-care to ensure optimum performance.

So if someone comes to you with a request to take a mental health sick day, I hope you will consider how that person must feel to make such a bold request in a society that still treats those with a mental illness as, “crazy.”

If you have concerns about the legalities of mental health care issues in the workplace, or face a situation involving harassment, please contact the RC Law Group and connect with a business attorney Tulsa. We can help institute policies and procedures that will help protect your business from liability and exposure issues.