On May 25, as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, the Department of Labor (DOL) ran an awareness campaign to remind both employers and employees that the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows time off work for mental health conditions.
The COVID-19 pandemic put employee mental health in the spotlight as many public sector workers struggled with increased anxiety, stress levels and burnout. Not every employer knew how to respond to this, with some being unsure as to whether mental health qualifies for FMLA leave.
So, let’s unpack the FMLA guidelines around mental health leave and how they contribute to wellness in the workplace.
The FMLA was signed into law in 1993 and is administered by the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL. It allows eligible employees to take leave to recover from a serious illness or to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member, without the threat of losing their job.
The FMLA encourages employers to take mental wellness seriously and provides clear guidance around mental health leave from work. Here’s what the Act says:
It is important to note that an employer may request that the employee provide a medical certificate from their healthcare provider to support the employee’s request for FMLA leave. The employee’s group health benefits should continue under the same conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Finally, the employee should return to the same or a virtually identical position at the end of the leave period.
The FMLA applies to employers with more than 50 employees. However, all government agencies are considered covered employers, regardless of the number of employees they employ. That means public sector organizations must provide family and medical leave to all their employees, including for mental health reasons.
As the world transitions out of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the pandemic-era benefits are likely to remain in the workplace. One of which is supporting employee wellness. Here’s how public sector organizations can use the FMLA and other pandemic-era developments to support employee mental health.
Supervisors and managers may not understand mental health illness or how it can affect an employee’s performance.
As a result, some employees may be reluctant to disclose their mental health challenges, fearing that it will negatively affect their careers. Managers who minimize or dismiss the seriousness of mental health conditions further inhibit employees’ openness to share their mental health challenges. This can result in reduced productivity and higher absenteeism rates as employees feign physical illnesses to get time off.
Training frontline managers on mental health issues can help to dispel myths and break the negative stigmas around mental health conditions.
One of the biggest benefits many employees enjoyed during the pandemic was the option to work from home. For employees with young children, and for those who care for aged parents or family members with a severe illness or disability, this was a godsend. It also made other employees aware of and more empathetic towards the challenges their coworkers faced. Some organizations intend to continue offering this type of support, which could benefit employees who face conditions such as severe anxiety or depression that make it hard to “put on a brave face” at the office every day.
American workers are notorious for not taking time off. This is an unhealthy work culture that has contributed to a multitude of physical and mental health problems in our country. Rest and relaxation are essential to good health. Encourage your employees to use their annual leave and to take a mental health day when needed. Make sure that employees are aware of and feel comfortable applying for FMLA leave for mental health treatment if necessary.
As a public sector employer, you have a legal obligation to support workers with mental health needs under the FMLA. For more information on how the FMLA applies to mental health conditions, you can refer to Fact Sheet #280: Mental Health Conditions and the FMLA and the FMLA’s Frequently Asked Questions page.
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