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HR Handled Right

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mental disabilities

In part 1 on suicide in the workplace, we talked about the employee who is either threatening suicide or thinking about. Now let’s take a look at what to do when the worst case scenario actually happens.

Our Employee Tried It

Scenario 3: You come in to work Monday morning to find a telephone message on your desk from the spouse of one of your employees. When you call her, she tells you that her husband, your employee, has been hospitalized over the weekend following a suicide attempt. You are stunned; not only did you have no idea this employee was in trouble, he was the last person you would ever think would attempt to take his life.

First, let’s take a look at this from a psychological perspective. If it becomes known that an employee has attempted suicide (and word almost always gets around, although, hopefully, not from you), coworkers may feel awkward or embarrassed because they don’t know what to say or how to act. However, avoiding the person or refusing to acknowledge the incident only makes matters worse. The returning employee also doesn’t want:

  • for someone to change to subject if s/he brings it up
  • to be given a pep talk
  • to be given a lecture, sermon, or put on a guilt trip
  • to be patronized, criticized or treated with kid gloves

If other employees ask you how to respond, encourage them to cue off the returning employee. If the employee brings up what happened, coworkers can offer valuable reassurance, respect and support. If the employee doesn’t, encourage coworkers to respect his/her privacy and not succumb to natural curiosity (why did you try it? how did you feel when you woke up? didn’t you think about your family?)

From an administrative perspective, of course, you need to make sure the employee is ready to return to work and able to complete the essential functions of the job. Work closely with the doctor’s office and spouse by writing the doctor, attach a job description (with ADA requirements needed to do the job), and let them know the environment and EVERYTHING and ANYTHING else that this employee may be exposed to and ask him if he/she is capable of performing the essential functions of the position.

If this person requires additional supervision or assignment of someone else to work along side this individual just to protect himself and other employees, this might be considered a hardship on the business as far as ADA is concerned. Working closely with the physician will help you decide on options like STD or LTD, further accomodation like light duty or putting in another area or position, personal leave until the person gets better.

All in all the study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family.

Grieving at the Office

Scenario 4: This afternoon you will be attending the funeral of one of your outstanding employees, who, after attending a morning of training last week (during which everyone said he acted normal), went home during lunch and apparently took his own life. He joked with co-workers, asked questions, and took notes, leaving his books open and ready for the afternoon session. This employee was very popular with his coworkers and manager and everyone is virtually paralyzed by his death. In addition, there has been a lot of second guessing about what warning signs people may have missed or overlooked.

People develop close relationships in the workplace and the death of colleague can be as devastating as the death of a family member. In fact, a recent study found that, just as a suicide in the family increases the risk of another in the same family, men’s suicide risk increases if they have had one or more work mates who had killed themselves in the last year. In fact, this study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family. That reason alone justifies encouraging employees to access your EAP if they would like to.

Second, while it is always good to educate your workers about the warning signs of suicide and depression, discourage employees from trying to second guess for what they might have missed. There are no easy answers. There are no simple answers. There are no single answers. Simply, there are no answers.

Part of the healing process is following the same rituals you would after any other death. Encourage employees to do whatever they would normally do to acknowledge a death. You should do the same. For example, if you would tell Mary on Sunday that you sure do miss John who died of cancer, you should tell her the same thing on Sunday if he died in this manner. Finally, no matter how tempted, don’t ask surviving family members to hypothesize about what happened. They’ll have a lifetime to ask themselves those questions without answers and they sure don’t need to try to answer them for anyone else.

The Bottom Line

Jeannette Walls once said, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.” HR professionals can’t prevent surviving work colleagues from grieving, but we can help them heal.

Once, again, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of workplace disability discrimination claims last year. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency received a record 100,000 complaints of disability discrimination in 2010, a 17% increase over the previous year. Employees with mental disabilities are especially vulnerable; according to the U.K. mental health charity Mind, one out of five employees who discloses a mental illness at work ends up without a job.

Employees with intellectual limitations fare no better. A particularly disturbing example is a recent lawsuit against Texas Company Hill Country Farms, who is accused of severely abusing 31 mentally challenged men who worked in their Iowa plant. Among the allegations; verbal abuse, including referring to employees as “dumb-ass, stupid and retarded,” physical abuse including hitting and kicking, and illegally low wages (as low as $65 dollars a month).

Lead Supervisors: First Responders to Disability Claims

While HR continues to bear the brunt of understanding and implementing the new changes and nuances, don’t underestimate the role front line supervisors have in communicating with disabled employees. The attitude and responsiveness of supervisors often determine, more than physical barriers, whether an employee with a disability feels that s/he is being treated fairly. In fact, the words of front line supervisors – both verbal and in careless e-mail — are the single biggest source of evidence that can turn a nuisance claim into a “bet the company” lawsuit.

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act: What Supervisors Need to Know

As with all areas of employment law, you should reinforce to your supervisors that they consult with your HR department or legal counsel for additional information and specifics on company procedure. Here are some additional ADAAA points to consider:

  • When it comes to disability requests, the revised ADA, i.e., the ADAAA, shifts the emphasis from investigating (why or how to accommodate) to what needs to be done.
  • When talking to an employee with a disability, supervisors shouldn’t ask questions about the condition itself. Instead, they should focus on job-related questions about the effect of the condition on the employee’s ability to do the job.
  • The ADAAA requires that accommodation be approached with an open mind (i.e., not begin by questioning the existence of the disability). As before, employers must honor the disabled employee’s medical confidentiality and may not explain to other employees why any resulting change is being made.
  • The supervisor may not be in a position to determine the legitimacy of a request for accommodation without medical input. Thus, employers can require employees to provide documentation from an employee’s health care provider about the disability and the need for accommodation. Supervisors should turn to their human resource professionals as they engage in this process with the employee.
  • Employees asking for an accommodation need not use any particular words and are encouraged to talk directly with their supervisor. Supervisors need to be able to recognize when an accommodation is being requested. Examples of accommodation requests can include references to doctor’s appointments, medical treatment, or specific problems (I’m having difficulty hearing other people on the phone).

For every minute spent preparing, an hour is earned. This is especially true for HR professionals, who not only bear the direct responsibility, but also ensure that those in the line of fire have the backup they need.

I wouldn’t say I loved to fly before I was pregnant with my first child, but it certainly wasn’t a white-knuckle event. Then, during a business trip when I was six months along, we flew into a storm. On the meteorologist’s scale, it was not even close to the perfect storm; I’d been through worse turbulence during my business travels.

However, I was suddenly gripped with a terror I can still recall but not adequately describe. The fear that something bad might happen to my baby quickly erased any rational thoughts from my head – and left me gripping the arm of the poor man sitting next to me and promising myself that if I ever got off that plane I would never, ever fly again.

Employees Lose Out on More than Frequent Flyer Miles

Of course I did. But it took years before I could board a plane without feeling a tightening in my gut and a shortening of my breath. Apparently, I’m not alone.

The fear of flying–or aviaphobia–is more of a problem than you might realize. Twenty-seven percent of USA Todaysurvey respondents said they were at least “somewhat fearful” of flying. Nine 9 percent are terrified of it.

A survey by the American Management Association found that 13 percent of employers reported that a fear of flying had adversely impacted their business. Employees pass up promotions that involve air travel and miss-out-of town meetings, while employers miss out on advancing otherwise stellar employees who could greatly contribute to the bottom line.

What are You So Afraid of?

While the fear of flying may be distinct phobia in itself, it is often a mish mash of different phobias. For example, it may be an indirect manifestation of one or more other phobias, such as claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces) or acrophobia (a fear of heights). It may have other causes as well – a fear of terrorism, of not being in control, of turbulence, of crashing, etc.

It is a symptom rather than a disease, and different causes may bring it about in different individuals. A fear of flying is a level of anxiety so great that it prevents a person from traveling by air, or causes great distress to a person when he or she is compelled to travel by air. The most extreme manifestations can include panic attacks or vomiting at the mere sight or mention of an aircraft or air travel.

Oh, Those Pregnancy Hormones

Fear of flying often begins during pregnancy. We might think it is because of the responsibility for another life – and that’s part of it. However, shortly before delivery, the brain of an expectant mother is flooded with hormones that cause her to become obsessed with safety.

Everything that even remotely looks like a risk has to be controlled or avoided. The hormones go away after delivery, but, unfortunately, the patterns of behavior established by the hormones may continue.

Fear of Flying and the Law

Always consult with your attorney before making any decisions about policies and practices related to mental or physical illnesses. If a company does not make reasonable accommodations for an employee who is truly traumatized by the thought of flying or affected to the point of having a medical issue-such as panic disorder-or to the point where he cannot perform job functions, serious legal issues and obligations under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and/or National Labor Relations Act may apply.

From a practical (and humane) standpoint, seriously consider an employee’s reasonable request for accommodation, such as telecommuting or participating in meetings via teleconference. If such an arrangement does not cause significant disruption to the smooth operation of your business, providing such an option, at least on a temporary basis, may assist employees in getting past a period of anxiety, especially give the fact that some of the typical flight anxiety relievers (Xanax, a few vodkas) aren’t recommended for pregnant women.

If the problem continues after childbirth, you can deal with it then; no one has to accommodate an employee by removing an essential function of her job. But the flexibility you show in the short run is the kind of strategy that costs little – and earns big bucks in terms of employee loyalty.