Can employees use FMLA for mental health conditions?

Mental health issues can often be overlooked in the workplace, particularly since they typically don't manifest themselves as obviously as physical ailments or conditions — but that doesn't mean they are any less serious.

In fact, if recent years have taught employees and employers anything, it's that mental health is just as important as physical health, especially in the workplace.

But what happens when an employee is unable to work due to a mental health concern? Can they take time off? And if so, must their employer protect their job until they get back? For many, the answer lies in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

If you've never heard of the FMLA, it is the federal law that permits eligible employees to take job-protected leave — up to 12 weeks in many cases — for specific family or medical reasons, including certain mental health issues.

Who qualifies for mental health leave under the FMLA?

Even though the FMLA has an expansive amount of coverage, there are still criteria that an employee typically has to meet in order to qualify for FMLA. This generally includes:

  • Working for companies with 50 or more employees, or working for public agencies, including federal and state employers.
  • Having worked for the same employer for at least 12 months.
  • Having worked at least 1,250 hours with the same employer during the 12 months before the requested leave.
  • Having worked at a location with at least 50 employees or a location which has 50 employees within 75 miles.

As you can see, employees of smaller companies may not have access to FMLA for mental health concerns — or any other reason — although individual employers can independently choose to give a leave of absence. It's also worth noting that individual states can create their own laws, in addition to the FMLA, that may provide mental health leave for employees.

But, meeting the requirements listed above is just the beginning. An employee seeking FMLA leave for a mental health concern may also need to satisfy other conditions, including possibly having to provide their employer with advance notice. In addition, an employer may ask for documentation from a therapist, doctor, or other medical provider showing that the employee is suffering from a mental health condition.

On the flipside, an employer can also encourage the employee to take FMLA leave for mental health concerns if there are noticeable signs that the employee is struggling.

What kinds of mental health concerns may justify FMLA leave?

Some forms of mental illnesses are more well known by people outside the mental health field than others. Here are a few mental health issues that employees may be able to cite when seeking to use FMLA leave for mental health:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Other medically diagnosed mental illnesses

The severity of the mental health issue will typically determine whether it qualifies for FMLA leave, which means the mental health struggle may need to be documented on some level. The therapist or healthcare professional who provides documentation will address whether it affects the employee's ability to perform their job or function in daily life.

Depending on the assessment and severity of their mental health concerns, an employee may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave for mental health issues.

If a person doesn't qualify to use FMLA for their mental health concerns, there are other options that an employer might potentially offer. These could include steps such as using vacation time or employee assistance programs, and making adjustments to schedule, routine, and job environment.

Mental health in the modern workplace

It was once taboo to discuss mental health, and people experiencing stress or mental illness were sometimes categorized as lazy or unproductive in the past. Perceptions of mental illness have come a long way in both the workplace and society at large. This shift is apparent in the fact that the FMLA includes mental health and employers and employees are both more comfortable discussing the need when it comes up.

The legal protections that FMLA laws provide for mental well-being are a big step in the right direction for making sure people with mental illness don't fall through the cracks. It helps ensure that employers and employees are on the same page about how to manage a scenario where mental illness keeps a person from doing their job.

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