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The Family and Medical Leave Act: Essential for Mental Health-Friendly Workplaces

Mental health is a vital component of overall well-being and can impact our relationships, our work and even our physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will experience a mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. lives with a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or major depression. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic pressures on workers have only increased the prevalence of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. And just as with physical health conditions, workers struggling with mental health conditions may need to take time away from work to seek treatment or recover.

Fortunately, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides eligible workers with job-protected leave to take time away from work to care for themselves or their family members because of serious mental health conditions. Employees on FMLA leave can also keep their employer-provided health coverage, ensuring they can maintain access to the mental health care they need.  

A great example of the value of FMLA comes from Trish Gallagher, an academic adviser for college freshmen in WestTrish Gallagher and her husband Tom wearing New Year's Eve hats. Virginia. Trish’s husband, Tom, was diagnosed with schizophrenia several years before he passed away in 2017. Tom was unable to drive, so Trish needed FMLA leave to take him to his appointments with doctors and counselors. In addition, he was prescribed medications to treat his mental health condition. According to Trish, FMLA provided the protections she needed to care for her husband while keeping her job and health insurance.

“The prescription coverage I got through health insurance was crucial because it covered most medication costs. Without those benefits, it would have been impossible to pay for the prescriptions Tom needed.” She believes more workers need to know about FMLA rights concerning mental health care. “I was one of the lucky ones,” Trish said. “I knew about FMLA, so I wasn’t afraid to ask for the leave I needed to take care of my husband’s health.”

To increase awareness of FMLA rights as they relate to mental health, the Wage and Hour Division has created new resources for workers, employers and advocacy organizations. Our new webpage has a link to a new fact sheet, “Mental Health and the FMLA,” as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

The FMLA’s essential worker protections are a necessary component to creating mental-health-friendly workplaces. But they’re just one part of the solution. There’s more that can be done, and we all have a role to play:

  • Organizational leadership can set the tone for a supportive, inclusive workplace.

  • Managers and supervisors can provide accommodations and promote assistance programs.  

  • Co-workers can listen and be a source of support to colleagues.

  • Workers with mental health conditions can ask for what they need to perform their best.

Trish’s story shows how workers and employers can ensure that FMLA leave can be used effectively for mental health care. “Once I told my employer that I needed FMLA leave to provide care for my husband, they were very cooperative. They provided all the paperwork I needed and didn’t doubt the necessity of my FMLA absences,” said Trish.

We all have a role to play in promoting mental-health friendly workplaces. The Wage and Hour Division will do its part to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness by supporting workers’ mental health through FMLA outreach and enforcement.

We hope workers, employers and advocacy organizations join our efforts during Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond. We invite you to share our new resources as well as those from the Campaign for Disability Employment.

Now more than ever, we all benefit from flexible, supportive workplace practices that promote good mental health.

Jessica Looman is the acting administrator for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. Follow the division on Twitter at @WHD_DOL.

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