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Three Best Practices For Managing The Mental Health Claims Crisis In 2024

May 30, 2024 logo

Macro drivers of mental health-related disability claims

If you’re in employee relations (ER), you already know that mental health-related accommodations and case volumes are skyrocketing—and it’s complicated. Unlike physical disabilities, mental health disabilities aren’t usually overt. Years of stigma have conditioned workers to keep them hidden for fear of retaliation. The result is a unique challenge for human resources (HR) teams – how do we manage an unprecedented workforce mental health crisis?

Before you get too anxious about it, remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve been presented with an opportunity to lead ahead of uncharted territory (looking at you, pandemic). Luckily, ER is a resilient community, and we have increasingly sophisticated tools and updated guidance that provide us with an excellent foundation for being proactive.

One such example of guidance comes from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) itself. I recently sat down with Keith Sonderling, the EEOC commissioner, who shared more context surrounding the financial, demographic and technological forces he believes are influencing the mental health crisis unfolding before us.

According to the most recent EEOC reporting, one-third of all disability claims are mental health-related, with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) driving the largest increases in claims. Recovery amounts illustrate the growing financial impact these claims have on organizations. In 2022, recovery amounts for anxiety were almost $14 million, for depression were nearly $9 million and for PTSD hovered around $6.5 million.

So, how does Mr. Sonderling categorize the macro drivers fueling the rise in mental health-related disability claims? Three stand out:

Return-to-Office Mandates

Executives want the workforce back in the office, and they’ve charged HR with executing the mandate. After several years of working remotely, Return-to-office or RTO is triggering a rise in anxiety disability claims. Whether they fear travel, exposure to illness, or just can’t concentrate around others anymore, the anxiety is real—and often diagnosed.

Gen Z’s Mental Health Awareness

Gen Z is the generation that gives life to the slogan “bring your whole self to work,” and they come forward quickly when they need accommodations. In general, Gen Z are more aware of mental health than previous generations, and they are much more comfortable discussing it. As traditional stigmas around anxiety, depression, ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), PTSD, and more steadily fall away, this generation exhibits a genuine desire to be understood for who they are and what they require to be successful.

The Existential Threat of Generative AI

Across generations, the workforce has real anxiety about generative AI taking their jobs. This is especially true for older, experienced people who’ve climbed to the top of the pay scale and view themselves as expensive assets. Understandably vulnerable, they fear they are training their less expensive, more efficient replacements.

Given these macro-drivers are out of our control, what should ER teams focus on? It’s simple – how we respond. Here are three best practices for proactively managing mental health accommodation requests and disability claims in 2024:

Best Practice One: Engage in the Interactive Process

Employees do not have to volunteer that they have a mental health disability, and the EEOC makes it very clear that the burden falls on employers to engage in the interactive process if an employee displays signs of struggle.

Even if you think a request is unwarranted, DO NOT avoid engaging in the interactive process. Instead, take every request seriously. Not only does it signal to the workforce that you respect their well-being and are acting in their best interest to provide a safe and healthy work environment, but it also protects you in court. If you never engage in the process and therefore don’t document anything, the EEOC will have a very easy case on its hands.

Important distinction – taking requests seriously is not the same as accommodating every request. If there are significant job requirements a person is unwilling or unable to perform, you have a duty to assess whether that person is still fit for the job. The EEOC provides guidance to employees about what constitutes reasonable accommodations here.

Best Practice Two: Understand the Guidance

Next up is understanding the guidance provided by the EEOC. For example, while there may be a federally protected right for certain individuals to telework due to mental health, accommodating people with anxiety includes more than just staying at home. Accommodations for diagnosed anxiety can look like offering alternative schedules, dimming workspace lights or supplying noise-canceling headphones. Make it a priority to know the EEOC guidance and ensure your team understands how to apply it.

Best Practice Three: Document & Train

Finally, acknowledge that everyone in the organization is not an EEOC expert. Inevitably, you’ll have managers and supervisors who don’t understand the accommodations process and, therefore, can’t articulate why some employees are allowed certain accommodations. Document your accommodations process and create training for team leaders.

The reality is that increases in mental health claims show no sign of slowing down. In some ways, it feels like we’ve only experienced the tip of the iceberg. Proactively adopting these best practices now is a smart start for keeping your organization ahead of a crisis.