Recently, I wrote an article on structural problems in US capitalism that work against our mental health to both create and exacerbate mental illnesses (particularly depression and anxiety). I want to take this one step further and talk about what the United States workforce can do to better support those struggling with their mental health.

“Tagging Off”

Mo from recently tweeted about this:

(I really do try not to fangirl over Mo and her blog too much. It’s difficult.)

The system she is describing already exists, in a sense, due to the freelance economy. Many corporations already hire teams to do a job rather than hiring individuals. It’s often more efficient to hire a freelancer (or freelance company) than to hire an in-house web designer, for example, whom you pay to sit there and wait for work to come in.

The freelance economy is steadily growing; Statista estimates there are 62.2 million freelancers in the United States as of 2019, and expects that number to grow to encompass 50.9% of the workforce by 2028.

From my experience as a freelancer, I consider this to be a very good thing. (I’ve already spoken here about why a “real” job wouldn’t work for me, and how much freelancing has changed my life.)

But while the freelance economy grows, there are still structural changes that would foster better experiences for the mentally ill in the workforce.

Barriers to Employment in the United States

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission should be covering mental health accommodations. This commission covers the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the ADA’s extension in 2008, and other related legislation.  

As a result, companies are not supposed to discriminate against those with mental illnesses, and should be providing “reasonable accommodation” to their mentally ill employees. Here’s an excerpt from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health which further breaks down these “reasonable accommodations”:

Examples of reasonable accommodations for people with mental health conditions may include:

* Providing self-paced workloads and flexible hours

* Adjusting your job responsibilities

* Allowing leave (paid or unpaid) if you are hospitalized or temporarily unable to work

* Assigning a flexible, supportive, and understanding supervisor

* Changing your work hours to allow you to attend psychiatrist or therapist appointments

* Providing more support or supervision, such as writing to-do lists and checking in more often with your supervisor

An employer does not have to provide these specific accommodations, but these types of accommodations are often considered reasonable for some jobs.

Note that last line: “An employer does not have to provide these specific accommodations.” You might apply for your dream job at XYZ Company and say, “Everything about this job is perfect, but could we make it a 30 hour workweek instead of 40? I need a little extra time for self-care.”

A perfectly reasonable request – and employers can still say no. Discrimination still happens all the time.

(There are also major problems with the bureaucratic processes behind proving one has a mental illness. I personally believe that the paperwork requirements to prove that you have a mental illness are staggering and make help inaccessible, but that is a different article.)

An Employer’s Pledge

Companies can already choose to say that they are an Equal Opportunity Employer, though the EEOC does not require it. However, there is a huge difference between a company saying we will not work against you and saying we will work with you. One is compliance; the other is support.

I would love to see every employer in the United States, from small businesses to mega-corporations, take a pledge of support for those with mental illnesses.

Here’s how that might look:

At {Company}, we want to do our part to end the stigma against mental health and provide support to the millions of Americans struggling with mental illnesses. If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or are struggling with your mental health, we encourage you to talk to your supervisor. We support you in this fight, and we pledge to accommodate your needs to the best of our ability.  

Ideally, someone would keep an official list of these mental health affirming companies.

These supporting companies might also be willing to agree to hire more freelancers, which would help with Mo’s suggestion above in creating small teams which trade off work when they can.

How does that sound? Please comment on this Twitter thread and let me know, or shoot me an email. If the idea has enough momentum, I think it’s an excellent starting point toward enacting change.

An Employee’s Pledge

Remember I said that bureaucracy gets in the way? It’s one thing for a company to pledge support, but if they require a bureaucratic process which takes six months to complete and a novel’s worth of paperwork… that is going to be a barrier to employment.

We need a simpler solution. As people struggling with our mental health, we need to be able to create a simple statement of work. Something like:

Hi, I am Valarie Ward and I struggle with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I work best in an environment that allows for remote work, limits one-on-one interaction with customers, and offers 20-30 hours of work per week.

Perhaps such a statement could be signed by my doctor just to confirm that yes, I do have this diagnosis. That would help ensure we aren’t taking advantage of the system.

Proving that I work best in a 20-30 hour workweek is not feasible. Ideally, an organization which supports and affirms our struggles with mental health will accept this simple statement as enough.

Perhaps a supportive supervisor would be willing to follow up on this statement over time and asking if it can or should be amended. The right supervisor may even be able to foster resilience by slowly encouraging the employee to extend just one step beyond their comfort zone.

Other thoughts

I hope that this is the first step in a much larger conversation about how to help connect those of us with mental illnesses to the workplace. Further research and discussion might include the following:

  • While this article focuses on American mental health, similar articles should focus on the barriers to employment in other areas of the world (especially the UK). Please feel free to write a supplementary article for your region; don’t be shy!
  • Another article that breaks down these bureaucratic challenges is forthcoming.
  • These ideas are closely related to those of education reform to incorporate mental health training and support. Again, another article.
  • This plan would require training supervisors on how to support their mentally ill employees. This could be as simple as one afternoon of training, but the logistics of this (what supervisors need to know, who trains them, in what format, and how do we fundraise for this) would require further research
  • Circling back to Mo’s point about “tagging off”, this sounds like the beginnings of an employment agency and/or database. Job seekers submit their work availability, their diagnoses, and other accommodations they might require. The seeker is then matched with a team of individuals with similar skills and a complementary availability. A hiring company then hires the team to do the work, and work is divided accordingly.
  • It is possible that an existing mental health nonprofit may be interested in taking on some of these duties (employment database, outreach to corporations, training for supervisors, etc.) If not, it may call for the establishment of a new nonprofit organization.

If you want to help be part of this conversation, please contact me, comment below, or reply to this tweet. We are building an army over on Twitter, and the best thing about an army isn’t that we fight against a common enemy – it’s that we fight for each other.