FMLA for Mental Health: Bridging the Gap Between Policy and Practice

By Mariah Collins, SHRM-CP on Feb 29, 2024
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In an era where mental health challenges are increasingly recognized, understanding FMLA for mental health becomes crucial for employers. With the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reporting that 57.8 million adults live with some form of mental illness, the necessity for workplaces to navigate the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provisions for mental health support is more important than ever.

This guide aims to provide employers with essential insights into FMLA for mental health, equipping them to offer the necessary support to their employees while adhering to legal requirements. Through a detailed exploration of FMLA for mental health, we aim to facilitate a workplace environment that is both supportive and compliant with federal regulations.

RELATED: How to Help Employees Return to Work After an Extended Leave >>

Does FMLA Cover Mental Health? 

Yes, the FMLA does cover mental health leave, subject to certain eligibility standards. Under the FMLA for mental health, covered employers must permit eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or a parent, child or spouse with a serious health condition, including a mental health condition.

We’ll dive further into the definitions of “covered employers” and “eligible employees” in our Fast Facts section of this post. 

Often, employees who are suffering from or caring for someone with a serious mental health condition will come to you themselves to request leave. Employers need to understand when a mental health condition is serious, the employer may be required to honor such requests for leave under the FMLA. 

RELATED: Empowering Your Team: Employer Guide to Short-Term Disability & FMLA >> 

Eligibility Criteria for FMLA for Mental Health Leave

Under the FMLA, a mental health condition warrants leave if it is considered “serious.” The United States Department of Labor (DOL) has stated that serious conditions require one of the following:

  • Inpatient care
  • Continuing treatment by a healthcare provider

Whether a condition’s severity meets the FMLA’s serious standard is an important distinction that is best weighed with the help of counsel or HR compliance experts. Common mental health conditions that may be covered under FMLA leave requirements include:

  • Permanent disabilities, such as autism and down syndrome
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Temporary conditions, such as eating disorders, addiction, anxiety, depression and dissociative disorders 

Employers can require an employee who has requested leave under the FMLA for mental health to submit a healthcare provider’s certification of the need. The certification does not need to officially diagnose an individual with a mental health condition, but it does need to provide support for the need for leave from work. Keep in mind that employers are permitted to request certification only when a current employee is requesting leave, and not when an applicant for an open role is informing a potential employer of a disability. 

mental health in manufacturing

FMLA for Mental Health: Fast Facts 

Busy small businesses often aren’t dealing with requests for FMLA leave on a regular basis. When you are faced with a request, it’s helpful to acquaint yourself with the basic facts: 

  • Some employers are required to permit leave under the FMLA for mental health

    The FMLA applies only to “covered employers.” While any employer can permit employees to take leave for mental health conditions, only some employers have to do so under the FMLA. Covered employers are those who employed 50 or more workers for a period of 20 workweeks or longer in the current or previous year. 
  • Not all employees are eligible for FMLA mental health leave

    As mentioned above, any employer can honor an employee’s request for leave to care for themselves or a loved one. Mandated leave allowances under the FMLA, however, extend only to eligible employees. An employee is considered “eligible” under the FMLA if they have worked for their employer for 12 months or longer and have logged 1,250 hours or more with the company. 
  • FMLA mental health leave can last up to 12 weeks

    If your employee has a qualifying need, they may be permitted to take leave for up to 12 weeks. When using the FMLA for mental health conditions, leave can be taken all at once or intermittently over a period of 12 months.
  • Leave can be paid or unpaid 

    The FMLA does not require employers to pay workers during periods of FMLA leave, whether taken all at once or intermittently. However, employers may choose to pay workers during this time and may require workers to take their FMLA-protected leave concurrently with any paid leave allowed by the employer’s existing leave policies. 

employee burnout causes and signs

Best Practices for Supporting Employees Under FMLA for Mental Health

As a small business, every employee is integral to your mission. Creating a supportive environment when your employees need it most is the best way to show your employees how valued they truly are. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind as you support your workers through their leave periods: 

The Do's

    • Do keep employees’ FMLA and mental health condition information confidential

      Not only is confidentiality required by the FMLA, it goes a long way in building a culture of trust at work. Keep your employee’s medical and other sensitive information (such as certifications of need for leave from health care providers) separate from routine personnel files. 
    • Do provide ramp-up support when your employee returns to work

      When your employee returns to work after taking FMLA mental health leave, they may still be struggling with managing their responsibilities. This can be true whether the leave was taken to attend to a personal condition or to care for a loved one. Offering an “ease-in” period to the extent possible can strengthen the bonds of an employer-employee relationship and set your team member up for success. 
    • Do work with HR experts to ensure you comply with the FMLA 

      Making sure you’re in total compliance with the terms of the FMLA can be tricky, and leaning on experts during your decision-making is key. 

RELATED: Parental Leave Policy - The Essential Guide >>

The Don'ts

    • Don’t discourage or force the use of federally protected FMLA mental health leave

      If you are a covered employer and your employee is eligible for leave under the FMLA, it’s critical that you honor FMLA leave requests. Even hinting at potential negative consequences resulting from taking leave could not only land you in trouble with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, but it can also destroy your relationship with your employee. While allowing leave where needed is critical, you should also be careful not to force employees to take leave just because you think it is needed. 
    • Don’t change the key terms of a worker’s employment once they return

      When an employee takes FMLA mental health leave, you must continue to provide them with the same group health benefits they had before taking leave. While they may need certain job adjustments upon their return, you may not revoke any benefits or beneficial employment terms they had before leave. When they return, their job (or a similar job with the same benefits) must be waiting for them. 

At Axcet HR Solutions, we know how valuable peace of mind is when it comes to HR compliance, and we’re here to deliver it. Let us handle the HR details while your business continues to grow and thrive. To find out more about how Axcet can help, schedule a conversation with our experts today. 

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