What an NBA coach can teach us about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic


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A few weeks ago, one of the EEOC Commissioners asked me what more the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could do to assist the HR community.

Right at the top of my list was a request for additional guidance on how businesses can help employees struggling with mental health during the pandemic. It will be one of the biggest HR issues of 2021.

An NBA assistant coach resigns citing mental health concerns.

Yesterday, I read this story on ESPN.com from  Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski. Mr. Wojnarowski reported that an assistant coach in the National Basketball Association had resigned, citing mental health concerns, after taking a two-week leave of absence. Here’s more from the article:

[The assistant coach] has privately described a need to step away from the pressures and workload of the NBA grind amid the pandemic, especially in the aftermath of several personal losses, including the loss of both parents.

His mother died in April 2020 after being diagnosed with cancer. His father died in 2019.

[He] also has lost multiple close friends in the course of the pandemic. He didn’t rule out a future return to coaching, sources said.

We often stereotype professional athletes and coaches as fierce competitors who play to win and never show weakness when the spotlight shines on them. But, mental illness can strike anyone. Indeed, many famous athletes have struggled with depression and other mental health concerns.

It can happen to anyone, including your employees.

Studies show that COVID-19 is taking a toll on their mental health. Recently, the CDC updated its resource on coping with COVID-19-related stress. And here are seven ways to help employees get the most out of your mental and behavioral benefits.

From an HR-compliance standpoint, there are also federal laws that protect workers who have a mental illness.

Depression and anxiety, among other things, can qualify as serious health conditions under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA provides eligible employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave a year and requires group health benefits to be maintained during the leave as if employees continued to work instead of taking leave. Employees are also entitled to return to their same or an equivalent job at the end of their FMLA leave.

TIP: An employee does not need to reference the FMLA specifically to invoke his/her FMLA rights. If an employee informs you that s/he is suffering from anxiety, depression, or other similar mental health issues, offer that person FMLA leave if you can.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities that will enable them to perform the job’s essential functions without creating undue hardship for the employer.

It’s easy to stereotype and downplay employee stress and anxiety. Don’t fall into that trap. Not now.

The EEOC has already acknowledged that an employee with a preexisting mental illness or disorder that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may now be entitled to a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship). The EEOC has this resource that addresses employee rights concerning mental health. There’s also the Job Accommodation Network, which is chock full of good information, like this, to help accommodate employees battling depression.

TIP: An employer may invite employees now to ask for reasonable accommodations they may need in the future when they are permitted to return to the workplace.

The Employer Handbook Zoom Office Hour returns on Friday at Noon ET

We’re just scratching the surface here.

I think we’ll talk about these issues some more when my special guest Abigail Morrow joins me for The Employer Handbook Zoom Office Hour on Friday at Noon ET. You can register by clicking here.

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