Navigating the mental health leave trend as an employer

In the past year alone, U.S. employers have seen a 65% increase in mental health leave requests. This eye-opening trend was reported in a 2023 annual employer survey report by Littler, highlighting that half of the employers surveyed have expanded their disability, accommodation and leave policies to support their employees. As an employer, this shift proposes both a challenge and an opportunity that involves understanding the need and impact on your business, staying compliant with expanding leave regulations, and improving the resources necessary to ensure employee well-being. This article takes a closer look into the recent trend of rising mental health leaves of absence, the factors influencing the influx of requests, the applicable leave regulation landscape, and helpful insights for employers to improve leave policies.

What is a mental health leave of absence?

A mental health leave of absence is a period of time off work that an employee takes to focus on their mental well-being and recovery. It allows them to address mental health concerns through various means, such as:

  • Receiving treatment for a diagnosed condition or illness like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse.
  • Engaging in therapy or counseling.
  • Prioritizing self-care practices to manage symptoms and improve overall mental health.

The leave might be paid or unpaid depending on the employer’s policies and local regulations. However, in certain situations, like those covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the employee may be eligible for job-protected, unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks.

What are the factors contributing to mental health leave requests?

Mental health now tops pregnancy, illness or injury, and caregiver leave as the most commonly requested need for leave. The staggering increase in mental health leave requests is influenced by several factors including the growing mental health crisis brought to light by the pandemic, increased awareness and reduced stigma, shifting stance by employers, and an evolving legal landscape.

COVID-19 Impact

While the main blow from COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, studies show that people’s mental health continues to suffer because of it. For many, the pandemic amplified existing mental health issues. Constant stressors like job insecurity, social isolation, increased workloads, and a politically divided nation exacerbated many of the difficulties people were already experiencing. Additionally, the increase in requests may be based on new conditions that stem from the disruption of people’s personal and work environments over the past few years, as many individuals had their support systems altered by the pandemic.

Increased awareness

As mental health jumps to the forefront of conversation in modern-day society, the topic itself has continued to shed the societal stigma that was so prominent in the past. With awareness and acceptance continuing to grow, employees are empowered to seek help and are more aware of the types of support available, such as disability and leave of absence benefits that weren’t as front-of-mind a few years ago. As the stigma around mental health issues decreases, more employers are proactively communicating the policies and related processes in place to accommodate the conditions their employees are facing. The increase in awareness is nurturing a foundation where employees are more comfortable requesting leave to accommodate their mental health needs.

Shifting employer priorities

When it comes to the bottom line, employers now understand the financial impact of a workforce facing mental health struggles, as it affects their current employees’ productivity and job satisfaction in addition to creativity, innovation, and overall engagement. Employers are seeking practical solutions to build programs that provide proactive and ongoing support to ensure the well-being of their workforce. With mental health taking center stage of new HR initiatives, employers are doing everything they can to implement policies that encompass the needs of their employees. This shift in priority is heavily influenced by younger generations making up more of today’s workforce, driving the importance of work-life balance and overall well-being.

Evolving legal landscape

From an employment law perspective, there is a framework of requirements that employers must follow to remain compliant under Department of Labor (DOL) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines. Legal protections covered by FMLA and ADA offer a baseline of compliance needs on the federal level. The increase in state and municipal regulations is expanding the policies that employers must cover for their employees. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia offer protections for a mental health leave of absence under state-specific medical leave regulations, which provides a lift of additional options for employees to ensure their health and overall well-being.

Insights for employers navigating mental health leave

As an employer, taking the fundamental steps necessary to support employees on mental health leave is critical. In reality, many workplaces lack the resources and expertise to manage the increase in mental health leave requests. To ensure you take the proper steps forward, you should assess how this trend affects business operations. You can establish a foundation for taking care of your employees, fine-tuning the administrative side of the equation, and building a more effective leave program through proper assessment.

Assess your leave data

Start by analyzing the leave usage at your organization. If you have a leave software solution in place, leverage the reporting functionality to review your existing data. Similarly, you may be able to pull this information from your HRIS or payroll system or request it from your outsourcing provider. Monitor the number of mental health leave requests compared to other leave types over a period of time to uncover the trend for your workforce. Have you seen an increase over the last couple of years? Are there seasonal variations? These are the types of questions you can assess to determine how your employees use mental health leave.

The next step is to track the costs associated with mental health leaves of absence in order to better understand the true financial impact of covering employees while they are out on leave. This context can include factors such as the cost of replacement workers and benefits. Compare these costs to potential upsides of offering mental health leaves of absence, such as reduced absenteeism and presenteeism (employees physically present but not fully productive).

Get feedback from your employees

Conduct a pulse check on your employees to gain insight into improving your leave program. Effective strategies include conducting employee surveys, focus groups, and tracking productivity and retention.

  • Employee surveys: Facilitate anonymous surveys to gauge employee perspectives regarding mental health at work. Ask questions about workload, stress levels, and access to mental health resources. Take it a step further by inquiring about experiences leveraging mental health leave.
  • Focus groups: Organize small group discussions to gain deeper insights into employee experiences. Discuss the challenges related to mental health and work. These conversations will drive the discovery of how your workforce perceives and utilizes mental health leave policies.
  • Track productivity and retention: Monitor changes in productivity metrics before and after implementing mental health leave policies. This analysis may include data such as employee retention rates. After you use employee feedback to improve your leave program, you want to understand if employees who take mental health leave are more likely to stay with your company after returning to work.

Assess the impact on human resources

Analyze the effect of mental health leave from the administrator’s point of view by reviewing the resources and time committed to managing the leave process. Some key areas to look at include the increased workload for your HR team related to day-to-day activities, policy development and implementation, the potential impact of leave abuse, and confidentiality concerns.

  • Day-to-day administration: Assess time and effort associated with processing leave requests, managing coverage for absent employees, and coordinating with mental health providers.
  • Policy development and implementation: Evaluate the effort of creating clear, comprehensive policies for mental health leave, ensuring compliance with relevant laws, and effectively communicating these policies to employees.
  • Potential for abuse: While leave abuse numbers vary by industry and company size, there’s a risk that some employees might misuse mental health leave as an illegitimate absence reason. The processes of vetting leave abuse adds another layer of leave management responsibility for HR.
  • Confidentiality concerns: HR needs to balance being supportive to employees while also maintaining confidentiality around mental health conditions. Dive into your policies, training, and assess the overall competency of your HR team when it comes to confidentiality and other best practices for managing leave.

Prioritizing mental health to improve your leave program

The surge in mental health leave requests among U.S. employers underscores a significant shift in workplace dynamics and employee needs. This trend, as highlighted by the Littler study, reflects both the growing mental health crisis and the evolving attitudes towards mental health in the modern workforce. Employers are not only witnessing a marked increase in requests but are also recognizing the imperative to adapt their policies and support structures accordingly.

The rise in mental health leave requests signals a pivotal moment for employers to reevaluate their approach to employee well-being and reshape workplace culture. By embracing this opportunity, you can meet the needs of your workforce and also foster a more resilient and compassionate workplace environment for the future.

To effectively navigate this landscape, you must assess existing leave data, gather employee feedback, and evaluate the impact on human resources. By understanding the utilization patterns of mental health leave, soliciting employee perspectives, and optimizing HR processes, you can equip your team to support employees’ mental health while ensuring compliance and operational efficiency.