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Can employees take FMLA leave for mental health conditions?

patient talking with a doctor about their mental health

FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and mental health

Increasingly, employers are seeking ways to support employees seeking help managing mental health conditions. According to APA’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey, 80% of employees seek employers who prioritize mental wellness. Requests for leaves under FMLA are one way employees are seeking to manage their mental health needs.

Organizations that understand today’s mental health challenges and want to support their employees can take a step in the right direction by prioritizing the topic. But what do you do when employees want leaves due to mental health issues? Can employees use FMLA? Yes. However, like with any other reason for leave, there are conditions.

Eligibility for leave for mental health under FMLA

Employees who are eligible for FMLA benefits can request FMLA leaves for themselves, or to care for their family members, for both physical and mental conditions.

FMLA allows employees to take leaves for serious health conditions when they require (a) inpatient care, or (b) continuing treatment by a health care provider.

Examples of FMLA leaves for mental health conditions

  • For Self: An employee can take FMLA time if they have a serious health condition that severely impacts their ability to work. Some common conditions that may qualify include depression and severe anxiety.
  • For Family Members: An employee can take FMLA leave to provide care for their spouse, parent, or child. For example, an employee can take FMLA leave if they need to travel to a drug rehabilitation facility where their child is undergoing treatment.

Note: FMLA leave for an employee’s child is generally offered when the child’s age is below 18.

  • For Adult Children: FMLA allows employees to take leave for an adult child (age 18+) if the child has a serious health condition identified as a physical or mental disability. For example, an employee can take FMLA leave for an adult child if the child has a bipolar disorder which is substantially limiting of their major life activities. The definition of a disability for an adult child under the FMLA is the same as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • For Military Caregivers: Employees are entitled for up to 26 weeks of military caregiver leave for service members and veterans if they have serious injuries or illnesses incurred in the line of duty. For example, an employee can qualify for military caregiver leave if their spouse develops PTSD symptoms a few months after they are discharged from military services.

FMLA insights for employers and HR professionals

The nuances of how FMLA can be used to manage mental health conditions can be difficult to understand, even for HR professionals. Below are three tips for employers:

  • Employees are not required to refer to FMLA when applying for leaves. Employers should proactively offer FMLA leave as an option for employees who are suffering from a serious medical condition that is impacting their ability to perform their job duties, including diagnosed and reported mental health conditions.
  • As with any other serious health condition, employees are obligated to provide medical certification of their health condition to their employer within 15 days. In some situations, the employee’s mental health may delay the employee from providing documentation. Responding with empathy should include recognizing there may be sensitivities that come with anxiety around releasing this type of medical information and it is important to work with the employee to provide every opportunity to get their supporting paperwork in. Conditions that are less obvious than a broken leg can may call for an individualized approach.
  • Employers should be mindful of employees with FMLA leaves with regards to performance management. If an employee’s performance issues could possibly be related to their mental health condition or if the employer did not start to document such issues until after the employee began using FMLA time, then the employee could have an argument for retaliation for using FMLA.

Mental wellness is important in any workplace. Not only does poor mental health affect employees on a personal level, but it also impacts productivity. Understanding the importance of effectively managing absences caused by mental health conditions, and by offering FMLA as appropriate to affected employees, employers can empower their teams and show that they value individuals and will work with them to provide leave when it is needed.

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