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How to Respond When an Employee Shares a Mental Health Challenge

November 28 - Posted at 1:00 PM Tagged: , , , , ,

The Covid-19 pandemic made us all vulnerable, and many of us are struggling to keep our mental health. In the U.S., the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5% from 2020 to 2021 — so much so that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an expert panel managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that doctors screen all adult patients under age 65 for anxiety. The Lancet also estimated that the pandemic caused an additional 53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder globally and an additional 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorders globally.

So, if one of your employees is struggling with their mental health, how do you talk about it? While you will have to have conversations that feel intimate and discomfiting, it’s also not your job to be the office therapist, and you don’t need to have all the solutions when a team member is struggling. Said Daisy Auger-Dominguez, chief people officer at Vice Media Group: “We are not therapists [but] we have to show evidence of care in our engagement with our teams. We also must ensure employees have access to the things that they need to be able to do their work well.”

The good news is that it’s possible to handle mental health conversations without overstepping your expertise. And while it’s natural to worry you’ll start asking the wrong questions or that your employee might ask questions you can’t answer, you can take steps now to create a culture where vulnerable conversations are OK, where boundaries stay in place and where people can get the help they need.

If having conversations about employee mental health makes you nervous, here are three things to remember:

  1. You’ll feel more confident if you have some prepared questions about workplace mental health in your back pocket.
  2. You can protect your boundaries and your team’s boundaries while still having meaningful discussions about mental health.
  3. Showing up is the most important thing.

Be Prepared for Vulnerable Conversations

All managers need to be familiar with the basics of privacy practices in the workplace and to have a set of questions ready for when mental health conversations happen.

Jen Porter, COO of the non-profit workplace mental health consultancy, advises to be curious about the impact of an employee’s mental health challenges, not the cause. She said, “You can ask anything you want about the impact of what’s happening on their work and at work. That’s fair game.” What you shouldn’t ask about, she said, is why the employee is having difficulties. Stay away from “what’s going on at home, the deep causes, the health history…anything that falls into that camp. That’s all therapist camp.”

In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers a basic rule: You can’t discriminate against someone based on health. This means “you can’t force them to talk about their health,” noted Porter. But you can address impacts on work — and the ADA also states employers should provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities, including mental illness.

Porter suggested asking open-ended questions and pairing them with non-judgmental observations. “You can ask something like, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been absent in our usual meetings, just wanted to check in and see how you were,’ or ‘You’re such an awesome project manager, but a lot of things seem to have been falling by the wayside. I just wanted to check in on you and see if there’s extra support you need or, or if you need to have a conversation with someone.'” These are very human but still about work.

If your employee opens up, however, what do you do? Porter advised, “Clearly they’ve found you to be a person that they trust — well done.” Your job as a manager is to listen, and then enable your employee to get help — but you “don’t want your employee to feel like you’re dropping them or handing them off. … We always recommend a more collaborative approach.”

Auger-Dominguez agreed. “You can say, ‘I’m feeling a little bit over my head right now. If it’s ok with you, I’ll reach out confidentially to HR to make sure that I’m giving you all the support that you need. And let’s meet again in a week.'” You might even suggest that you and the employee walk down to the HR office or connect to a mental health employee resource group. “Just because they’re getting support from someone somewhere else doesn’t mean that they’re [still] not getting support from you,” Auger-Dominguez noted. “It just means that they’re getting support from multiple places and you can focus on where you can give the right support, which is in a work-related context.”

If there’s low trust in HR within an organization, Porter suggested connecting an employee to a peer-based group which tends to have higher trust among employees. “Often people in those groups will have worked with HR or will have tried out the mental health benefits. And sometimes that storytelling and normalizing can be super helpful.”

Set and Protect Boundaries

Whenever you talk about mental health, personal boundaries come into play — the limits and rules we set for ourselves in our relationships. When we cross our own or others’ boundaries, things can feel uncomfortable, emotionally draining and just not right. Many managers fear becoming their employees’ go-to resource for mental health challenges because instinctively we know that our boundaries will be crossed, which will zap our own energy and mood. This might lead us to avoid having vulnerable conversations with members of our team.

However, there is a way to have these conversations and protect boundaries, said clinical psychologist Dr. Emily Anhalt. When it comes to addressing how people should share in a work setting, Anhalt suggested using “boundaried vulnerability”: sharing enough with others to invite connection, without sharing so much that you or your team has an emotional hangover.

The idea, Anhalt said, is that “There’s a spectrum from too tight to too leaky. Too tight is when we don’t let ourselves show up as humans at work. When we’re going through a really tough time and someone asks how we’re doing and we say ‘I’m good, everything’s fine. I don’t know what you’re talking about.'” This doesn’t work well because people are perceptive and may feel like we’re shutting off possibilities for authentic connection. Too leaky is when people “evacuate so much of their emotional stuff at work that it puts other people in a position of being their therapist or fixing something they don’t have the responsibility to fix.”

Let’s say a person is going through a messy divorce. They’re really overwhelmed and it’s affecting their work. If they pretend everything is fine, that’s too tight of a boundary and not reality. You and your colleagues actually want to know how the person is doing! But on the other end of the spectrum, saying something like “My spouse is just being absolutely horrible to me, and I don’t know what I’m going do about it. Every day I wake up and I don’t know how I’m going get through the day and I get here and it’s just more of the same. What do you think I should do? How should I handle it?” — that’s too leaky.

What’s the middle ground? Anhalt said the boundaried vulnerability version would be for the person to say something like, “To be honest, I’m actually going through some really tough stuff at home. It’s definitely affecting how I’m showing up at work. I’m getting support with it. But what I’d really love from you, if you’re open to it, is a little bit of extra time on that deadline? Is that doable?”

As managers, we can model boundaried vulnerability. If someone comes to us in a puddle, we can say, “I can tell that you’re going through a lot, and I want to make sure that you get the support you deserve for this.” In this situation, we’re modeling own boundaries while also helping the person move to the most appropriate next steps. Auger-Dominguez said you can also keep boundaries and support an employee by holding structured time open for them. If you learn about a mental health crisis during a one-on-one check-in, you can end that meeting by saying something like: “Our next scheduled meeting is five days from now. Is it okay to wait until then? Or would you like to check in earlier?” Then, honor their preference and show up for them at their desired time.

Further, as you set your own boundaries, it’s important to understand that our own anxieties and challenges may be triggered by leaning in to help our employees, said Arti Kashyap Aynsley, global head of health and wellbeing at Ocado Group. Managers want to “lean into being empathetic and compassionate, but we have tasks and deliverables and things that need to get done,” and there are only so many hours in the day. Managers can provide support and guidance, but other professionals in your organization likely have time and training dedicated to help employee mental health.

However, she noted, because rates of mental ill health are so high, and so many people need additional support, companies also need to give managers the time to accommodate increased needs of their teams. It’s not fair to expect managers to support their teams’ needs while not building in space for these conversations to happen.

Showing Up Is the Most Important Thing

Perhaps the most important thing a manager can do to support employees is to show up and listen, and then figure out what your employee needs.

Auger-Dominguez said if a team member seems “a little wobbly,” she asks a simple question: “Do you need me to witness, help or distract you right now?”

This is important, “because if we get clear on that, I’m also normalizing asking what people need, rather than making an assumption. It also creates clarity on what the expectation is from me as their manager. Sometimes they just want me to witness, so it’s not about me solving for anything. It’s just about them. If they want help, I’m going to help them get the resources they need.” And if the employee needs a distraction, Auger-Dominguez might say, “Hey, let’s go for a walk or coffee.” This strategy also helps develop your employees’ agency; that way, they feel empowered to ask for help, versus you trying to assume what they need.

The conversations you have with your employees are the culture you create. Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, said that only 10% of mental health outcomes are a result of clinical mental health care. The determinants of mental health are broader and societal, and our workplaces are a huge factor in our mental health. Mentally healthy workplaces want employees to feel valued, heard, impactful — and to have agency over their time, work and decisions.

So, remember: You don’t need to be the office therapist. You just need to be ready to listen.

The Winter Blues: How Less Sunlight Influences Workplace Productivity

November 18 - Posted at 8:17 AM Tagged: , ,

Each year, millions of people in the U.S. experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression or the “winter blues.”

The disorder is characterized by short periods of sadness or people not feeling like their usual selves, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. People may start to feel “down” when the days get shorter in the fall and winter but then feel better in the spring.

“Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression tied to a seasonal pattern,” said Hanne Hoffmann, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University (MSU). “It usually begins in the fall, but some people do experience it in the summer.”

Employers have become increasingly cognizant of mental health problems in the workplace, evidenced by more companies offering “mental health days” and enhanced counseling benefits. Hoffman said that organizations can support workers with SAD in more nuanced ways.

Who Is Vulnerable to Developing SAD?

Sabine Schmidt, director for psychology education with the University of Minnesota, said that the symptoms of SAD often mirror those of major depression. These signs and symptoms can include:

  • Feeling “down” most of the day.
  • Losing interest in work or activities.
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • Having trouble concentrating.
  • Experiencing decreased energy.
  • Oversleeping.
  • Craving carbohydrates.
  • Experiencing weight gain.

A 2020 article by Forbes indicated that SAD can negatively affect motivation and diminish workplace communication and productivity. Workers with the disorder are also more prone to injuries, accidents and absenteeism, which costs businesses $51 billion annually.

“These symptoms may not be immediately visible [in the workplace] but could go with behaviors such as decreased work productivity, difficulty being on time, slowness, irritability or social withdrawal,” Schmidt explained.

Hoffman said that women experience SAD four times more frequently than men do. She noted that it is unclear why women are more at risk for seasonal depression than men.

Studies have indicated that as much 20 percent of the population in northern states, including Alaska, experience some degree of seasonal depression in the winter because daylight hours are shorter. In southern states like Florida and Texas, seasonal depression is rare.

Why Workers Need Sunlight

Hoffman, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry and neurobiology, runs a lab at MSU that studies how light regulates our physiology, affects our overall well-being and mood, and induces changes in brain function.

“Sunlight boosts your mood and energy,” she said. “What really happens [with SAD] is that our mood follows light quality and light intensity.”

Many employees who work in an office arrive to work when it is still dark outside. When they leave the office, dusk approaches. Hoffman said that this lack of sunlight can increase their risk of developing seasonal depression.

She also noted that natural light promotes an increased sense of well-being. In the fall, many workers do not get enough natural light to maintain the brain signals for feeling happy, so they start to feel sad.

“It’s important that the workers see bright light in the morning,” she explained.

Tips for Employers to Prevent Seasonal Depression

Most workplaces have indoor lighting that is relatively dim. Hoffman suggested that employers improve their indoor lighting, especially in the late fall, to prevent or reduce the effects of seasonal depression among their employees.

She recommended that employees dealing with SAD purchase a light therapy lamp, which emits a brighter light than traditional bulbs, to keep at their desk. She also implored companies to consider allowing more flexible work hours during the winter months.

“The workplace can allow people to start a little later so they see the morning light,” Hoffman said. “Giving them the flexibility to see this morning light will help them prevent seasonal depression.”

Schmidt said that companies should educate themselves as well as their employees about the winter blues.

“For instance, many people wrongly believe that SAD is a minor form of depression or caused by a bad attitude,” Schmidt said. “However, people don’t cause SAD and cannot simply shake it off.”

She also recommended that companies:

  • Distribute SAD-related information based on scientific evidence.
  • Advise employees who are open about their symptoms to consult a mental health professional.
  • Encourage the use of paid time off to treat SAD or to engage in physical activity, because inactivity can exacerbate symptoms.

Schmidt implored workers to address any signs of winter blues before they become full-blown SAD or major depressive disorder. Once SAD reaches the levels of major depressive disorder, it can cause serious mood changes that affect thoughts and actions.

“It can be quite debilitating and lead to other serious problems such inability to work, substance abuse, physical health deterioration and even suicide,” she said. “Those with known SAD should consult a mental health professional about when to start treatment to help minimize symptoms.”

Leadership Seminar Recording Available

March 10 - Posted at 1:42 PM Tagged: , ,
The recorded presentation of AAG’s Mental Health First Aid for Supervisors held on March 10, 2022 is now available for viewing.

Guest speaker Joyce Marter is a licensed psychotherapist, entrepreneur, national public speaker, and a mental health thought leader.

Behavioral health issues in the workplace cost American employers over $500 billion a year. In this dynamic and interactive workshop, supervisors and leadership were equipped with tools to reduce absenteeism and healthcare costs and increase employee wellness, retention, productivity, and morale. Attendees learned about the current trends in mental health and addiction and learn tools for prevention, early detection, and referral for appropriate levels of care. Participants were taught how to respond to mental health issues in the workplace in a collaborative way that is kind, compassionate, effective, and legally sound. Innovative tools, exercises, and resources are shared that make for excellent ongoing wellness programming.


This seminar is also approved for 1 Professional Development Credits (PDCs) with SHRM for all attendees.

Please contact our office for the link to view the presentation or the Activity ID for the PDCs.

Virtual Mental Health Care Presents Opportunities—and Potential Risks

February 24 - Posted at 8:50 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

A sharp rise in the availability of telehealth benefits has opened up new opportunities for mental and behavioral health counseling, as well as challenges for health care providers, employers and employees.

Addressing a ‘Mental Health Crisis’

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented mental health crisis” with increased cases of depression, substance abuse and suicide, said Dennis Urbaniak, executive vice president of digital therapeutics at global pharmaceutical company Orexo. “The ability to receive care regardless of a person’s geographical location or proximity is obviously appealing, particularly when it comes to mental health care, which unfortunately continues to be surrounded by stigma, especially in the workplace,” he pointed out.

Employees in small cities that might not have enough local demand for a certain type of group can still get the support and resources they need by connecting with others, who could be located literally around the globe, Urbaniak noted. So it’s no surprise that virtual mental health care options have been on the rise.

At Voya Financial, chief HR officer Kevin Silva said that while telehealth options for acute physical care were already available to employees pre-pandemic, these options have been expanded to include primary care and mental health care. “Telehealth visits spiked for Voya in 2020 and have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels,” Silva shared. “Many employees prefer the convenience of telehealth [for physical and behavioral health visits] and it’s beneficial to employers because appointments are quicker with less impact to productivity.”

Virtual care is also being further automated through artificial intelligence, so that sometimes the “doctor” an employee may be interacting with isn’t a doctor at all. Wysa, an AI- and human-driven digital mental health app, provides counseling and support delivered by both credentialed mental health counselors and an AI chatbot available to employees and other users 24/7. The AI chatbot uses AI-CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help people through their challenges and adapts to their unique situations based on their responses.

Zooming into Group Therapy

Many employees continue to feel isolated and anxious as remote and hybrid work continue. The opportunity to get together virtually to share concerns or participate in group treatment options can help.

Zoom, the popular app for holding online business meetings, is now being used by some mental health services providers as a virtual venue for behavioral group therapy or disease management support. For example, BrightView, an addiction services treatment provider in Cincinnati, facilitates virtual group therapy via Zoom to “help provide a safe environment [for patients] to heal emotionally, connect to others who understand your background, express your ideas, reflect on your experiences, and engage in support,” according to the organization’s website.

Psychotherapist Sean Grover described how during the pandemic he began using Zoom for therapy groups he had formerly held in his New York City office. “I didn’t have high hopes,” he wrote. “I decided not to charge for the first Zoom sessions because I was confident that online therapy groups would be a snoozefest. … I was wrong. From the first session, I could see that group members [were] starved for contact. They were thrilled to see each other.”

Zoom groups provide more flexibility for busy patients, Grover noted. Due to schedule conflicts, illness, child care and other priorities, group members often “would have to miss the session or even drop out of group. Now they call in from home, the office or other locations.”

As the pandemic wanes, Grover continues to offer Zoom sessions for individual and group therapy, as do other therapists, although some have raised concerns over hacking risks (see the discussion of privacy issues, below).

Effective Care

The early evidence suggests that virtual care for mental and behavioral health issues is effective. Virtual care provider Teladoc’s 2021 Mental Health Survey of 2,253 U.S. adults found that:

  • Mental health support seekers give nearly identical high ratings to their virtual and in-person mental health care experience.
  • 92 percent of virtual mental health support seekers report at least some improvement during the pandemic, with over a third reporting a “breakthrough.”
  • 75 percent of those with anxiety reported improvement after the fourth visit, and 76 percent of those with depression reported improvement after the third visit.

Despite the promise of this technology to serve a wide range of needs while improving access and even reducing costs, there are some caveats to be aware of. For instance, the Teladoc survey showed that:

  • Almost 70 percent of respondents believe it is too difficult and overwhelming to use multiple websites, mobile apps and virtual care platforms to address their mental health.
  • 78 percent said they preferred a single, unified experience for mental and physical health virtual care.

Privacy Issues

Using Zoom for group therapy does pose the potential for privacy risks.

It’s better to hold such group meetings in a specific telemedicine tool, since health tech vendors typically take extra steps to ensure end-to-end security of their customers’ health data in such apps versus Zoom.

Concerns over data privacy were also raised by Dr. Mark Kestner, chief innovation officer with MediGuru, a telehealth services provider.

“The data generated by the virtual visit must be compliant with privacy standards and integrated into the clinical plan to measure the quality and outcome of care,” he said. “While the thought of ‘care anywhere’ is intriguing, there are limitations on the clinical force, such as state licensure and credentialing for the service.”

 

4 Tips for Beating Work-From-Home Burnout

May 10 - Posted at 9:00 AM Tagged: , , , , ,
Zero commute time, savings on transportation costs and takeout lunches, more time for mid-day workouts—there’s no doubt that working from home (WFH) has its benefits. But with many organizations choosing to stay remote for longer to protect their workforce from COVID-19, employees are finding this situation to be less than ideal.

The “freedom” of working from home comes with its challenges. Working parents are struggling to balance childcare and distance learning during working hours, pets are demanding attention at all hours and the constant interruptions of family or roommates can break focus and
productivity. Additionally, many employees have fallen into unhealthy habits and lifestyles—late nights, poor ergonomic set up, reduced physical activity and the inability to disconnect. Exacerbated by the lack of communication experienced in the physical workplace environment, an increasing number of people are suffering high stress, anxiety and burnout. Your workforce needs help and fast, before the effects of employee burnout begin to impact your business.

Included is a free brochure with information on how to recognize symptoms of employee burnout as well as tips to help employees prevent WFH burnout.

3 Strategies to Help Your Remote Employees Battle Isolation

May 06 - Posted at 9:43 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

The sudden and prolonged isolation brought on by COVID-19 has greatly impacted the normal routines and activities of the entire workforce. While the ongoing vaccine rollout inspires hope for a COVID-free future, the emerging virus variants and the harsh winter weather experienced across the United States after over a year of social distancing have raised further concerns about employee mental health issues and engagement in 2021.  

As many employers continue to manage a partially or entirely remote workforce – some of which may shift to a permanent off-site or hybrid workplace model – they’re faced with the challenge of keeping employees connected. Since social health plays an important role in determining an overall sense of wellbeing and a large number of individuals aren’t socializing with coworkers, peers and friends like they used to, it’s important for workplace leaders to provide their people with opportunities to make meaningful connections. The wellbeing of your workforce depends on it.  

Offer Opportunities for Social Connections 

The mental wellbeing of your workforce is best supported by positive social interactions. Remote workers who have struggled with feelings of loneliness and social isolation are more likely to feel lonely, anxious and depressed, which is why it’s important for organizations to provide plenty of opportunities to engage with their co-workers. Encouraging employees to work together on collaborative tasks, scheduling weekly team meetings (they don’t have to focus on work!) and empowering employees to create and interact with interest-based groups within their digital wellbeing platforms are just a few easy ways to help your people feel connected. 

Prioritize Mental Health in the Workplace  

Providing employees with mental health resources is a must. Beyond offering up mental health benefits like mindfulness tools and live health coachingremote workers can also engage through activities like guided team meditation or virtual yoga sessions. According to MetLife, 79% of employees who report good mental health are less likely to feel detached from their organization. Additionally, 86% of workers who feel that they are mentally healthy are more likely to be productive at work. Rather than simply considering workplace mental health resources as an addition to an employee benefits package, putting an emphasis on mental health as a main component of company’s culture is an essential business move in 2021. 

Strengthen Remote Company Culture 

Countless employees are missing the bustling workplace environmentThe constant Zoom meetings and digital interactions lack the sense of social connectedness once accustomed toFinding unique ways to make regular meetings and virtual communication more engaging is critical for maximizing employee performanceCasual video chats and remote social happy hours are a great way to use technology as an advantage and initiate a stronger connection among employees while working remotelyAdditional ways to promote more social interactions among employees include scheduling group exercise breaks or starting a workplace wellbeing challenge. To ensure everyone is able to participate, consider designating employees who really know their way around the virtual world as leaders for a multigenerational workforce. By opening more channels of communicationthe remote work environment will improve for everyone and increase employee engagement as well as productivity.  

Around 66% of workers are struggling to stay socially connected, which is negatively affecting their wellbeing. Fortunately, by encouraging your remote workforce to prioritize their mental health and social wellbeing, organizations are likely to see a significant increase employee engagement and productivity as employee wellbeing improves.   

May is Mental Health Month

May 07 - Posted at 9:08 AM Tagged: , , ,

Since 1949, Mental Health America and affiliates across the country have led the observance of May is Mental Health Month by reaching millions of people through the media, local events and screenings. They welcome other organizations to join in spreading the word that mental health is something everyone should care about by using the May is Mental Health Month toolkit materials and conducting awareness activities.

While 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, everyone faces challenges in life that can impact their mental health. In 2020, their theme of Tools 2 Thrive will provide practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase resiliency regardless of the situations they are dealing with. They now believe that these tools – even those that may need to be adapted for the short term because of COVID-19 and social distancing – will be more useful than ever.

 

You can reach their full website here to download their toolkit or let us know and we can send you a copy. 

Gonna Have To Face It We’re Addicted to…Everything?! Digital Addictions In The Workplace

April 18 - Posted at 3:00 PM Tagged: , , , ,

Cell phones. Video games. YouTube. TV. iPads. Kindles. Online Gaming. Netflix. Hulu. Amazon Prime. Stream, click, stream, repeat.

As the years go on, so too does the list of things to which people become addicted. Emerging front and center as a relatively new but common modern addiction—to which employers are having difficulty responding—is the concept of a digital addiction. A digital addiction, also referred to as a gaming addiction, internet addiction, smartphone addiction, and/or social media addiction, is more than a mindless but incessant checking of one’s cell phone, more than browsing Facebook while taking a break from company-focused work. It is a complete disruption to and dysregulation of the daily life of an individual, due to compulsions to engage in the addictive and cyclical behaviors.

Digital Addictions

Like other, better understood addictions, a digital addiction essentially renders an “addict” unable to perform a major life activity, such as sleeping, eating, or, better yet, working. Although the behaviors themselves (use of electronic devices) may seem more benign than drugs, alcohol, or sex, the personal impact is no less severe.

And perhaps even more concerning is the fact that digital addictions can be hard to spot and even harder to stop: we live in a day and age that virtually necessitates constant and unwavering digital and electronic connection. Behaviors that may be dangerous for a minority of the population with a digital addiction are entirely socially acceptable for the majority of individuals, rendering the line between an addiction and a habit blurrier than ever. 

Organizations worldwide have begun conducting investigations and research into the impact of a digital addiction upon both the quality and productivity of life. Despite the fact that these studies are in the early phases, the results ought to be taken seriously, as they mirror those of better understood addictions.

By way of example: a high school student reported being unable to live without his cell phone and used it so frequently that he became hospitalized due to lack of exercise and movement. While in the hospital, he was told he had the lungs of someone nearly four times his age—the direct result of an addiction to his phone at the expense of other, healthier coping mechanisms. Multiple recent deaths in South Korea have been directly blamed on an incessant addiction to gaming, as the victims lost track of the real world and their personal needs. And, for the first time in 28 years, the World Health Organization has gone so far as to revise its International Classification of Diseases. What made the cut? “Gaming disorder,” a sub-type of a disorder arising from behavioral addictions.

Treatment For Digital Addictions

As the prevalence and understanding of digital and gaming addictions rises, so too does an understanding of the disorder and its treatment. Rehabilitation facilities are developing specialized tracks focusing on gaming addictions. One such center is The Edge, located in Thailand, touting its programs designed to break digital addictions, treat the root causes leading to the addictive behaviors, and reprogram and repair relations to the digital world and its technology. A Place of Hope in Washington State boasts another similar program, as do countless centers from California to Florida. Although this addiction is not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), treatment programs are seeing the growing need for programs specifically tailored to digital and gaming addictions.

As with other addictions, a digital or gaming addiction often arises out of feelings of discontent, stress, pressure, anxiety, depression, or other underlying mental health conditions. The co-occurrence of one or more disorder is often present, making the addiction more difficult to treat. Similarly, and as with other addictions, the behaviors (here, gaming or compulsive use of the internet) are but a symptom of a deeper cause; typically, the behavior itself serves to either avoid, ignore, or “numb out” from more complicated inter and intrapersonal issues. In other words, the presentation itself may not be the cause, but the presentation may be the first behavior to “fix.”

What Does This Mean For Employers?

What does this mean for you as an employer? The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008 requires health insurers and group health plans to provide parity between its coverage of mental health treatment and medical or surgical care, a dramatic shift that allowed hundreds of thousands of individuals to seek the mental health treatment they so desperately needed. It increased the prevalence of treatment facilities and rehabilitation programs focusing on a variety of mental health issues, as they are now able to receive funding through insurance companies when treatment otherwise would not be covered.

Although a digital addiction may not officially be recognized in the DSM-5, that does not make it any less severe or serious. Furthermore, because individuals often have co-occurring disorders or conditions, it is likely that an individual with a digital addiction may also be suffering from at least one other mental health condition. This, in turn, increases the chance that they would be accepted into a treatment program funded by their health insurance.

In recent years, employers have come to understand their obligations related to mental health issues and disabilities; employees are to be granted reasonable accommodations for mental health disorders the same as they would be for a physical disorder or illness. This includes, when applicable, leave to attend treatment on an inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, or outpatient basis under federal laws like the Family Medical Leave Act or Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state laws, like the California Family Rights Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. What, then, is an employer’s obligation if an employee exhibits a digital addiction?

It is prudent to accommodate an individual with a digital addiction the same way you would accommodate any other individual: engaging in the interactive process, and reviewing and discussing any restrictions, limitations, or accommodations that may be needed. While there may be concerns regarding an employee’s ability to return to work in the digital age after receiving treatment for a directly related addiction, this concern cannot be used as a basis to engage in an adverse action against an employee.

This remains the case even if the disorder is not officially “diagnosable.” In other words, an employer must take a digital addiction seriously, even if it does not understand the addiction or personally believe the addiction is legitimate.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For now, there are several best practices employers can use concerning digital addictions. An up-to-date compliant handbook with policies addressing leaves and accommodations goes a long way. A handbook creates the foundation for your policies and procedures. If your handbook is wrong, or if you (gasp) do not have a handbook at all, your internal policies and procedures are much more likely to be problematic and subject to tougher scrutiny.

Your handbook also needs to be acknowledged by your employees. You can use an employee’s acknowledgement to show they were well aware you were more than willing to reasonably accommodate them and welcomed any and all accommodation requests.

Document, document, document. We cannot say it enough: document notice of an employee’s alleged disability; meetings and communications discussing the alleged disability; and requested, offered, or denied accommodations. This helps paint a picture that you took the alleged disability seriously and tried to reasonably accommodate. Without documentation of this interactive process, it may as well have never happened.

Train your managers and supervisors. They can make or break your defense. They typically receive notice of an alleged disability or requested accommodation first. If they fail to take this seriously and begin the interactive process, your defense can be severely undermined. They need to know what constitutes “notice,” that the company has interactive process obligations, and how to handle accommodation requests.

Not so fast…do not be too quick in denying accommodations (even if you want to).  The law requires that you participate in a “good faith” interactive process, which means considering each and every possible reasonable accommodation in “good faith.” Document any legitimate reasons why an accommodation may not be “reasonable,” but understand that not everything is “unreasonable.” While employers do not have to provide accommodations that are unduly burdensome, “undue burden” is an extremely tough standard to meet and is looked at primarily in financial terms by courts. So, unless a particular accommodation costs you some serious money, results in a loss of serious money through disruption to your operations, or is a direct threat to the health and safety of others, you are probably going to have to provide it.

Watch the timing of adverse actions. Retaliation claims are on the rise and are currently the number one charge filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retaliation largely focuses on timing – how long after an employee engaged in “protected activity” (like requesting a reasonable accommodation) did they suffer an “adverse action” (like termination). The closer in time, the more retaliation seems plausible. To combat this, make sure you properly manage bad employees, have the documentation to support your story, and terminate as soon as termination is legitimately warranted.

Finally, stay up-to-date on changes in the law concerning digital addictions. A critical part of avoiding future claims is being aware of your ever-changing legal obligations. 

Conclusion

The times continue to change, and so too does our understanding of modern addictions. Video conferencing and cloud hosting have begun to replace in-person meetings and file rooms. iPads and tablets have begun to replace notebooks and pads of paper. Cell phones have rendered landlines all but obsolete.

Although new technology may be initially feared, with time comes understanding. This age-old maxim holds true with respect to digital and gaming addictions, as well: although it may not be well known as of present, awareness begets recognition, and recognition begins understanding. Patience, an open mind, and a good labor and employment attorney will take care of the rest. 

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