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I have an employee who has recently disclosed struggling with depression (in response to being unable to fulfill the duties of his position). He is in a professional position and performs a unique role in our small organization. (That is, there is no one else in the organization qualified in the same profession, so no one can fill in for him when he is unable to work.) He took 10 sick days last month.

I am wondering what kinds of reasonable accommodation might help an individual suffering from depression to the point where working a traditional full-time job is apparently not possible. His hours are already largely flexible, though there are some tasks that need to be done on a schedule. We are willing to reduce the position to part-time, but the employee is reluctant to do that for financial reasons. Are there other creative solutions that might help in a case like this?

Yes, I know we need to consult an employment lawyer. I'm not looking for legal advice here. I am interested in learning of creative accommodations which might help this employee.

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    Check the links in my answer in workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/40420/… and let me know if they are any good to you. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 17 '15 at 21:36
  • @VietnhiPhuvan those are good links. I'm looking more for information about what kinds of accommodations might help someone in this situation. The depression is new and I don't think the employee knows what he needs. I will edit the question accordingly. – PurpleVermont Jan 18 '15 at 3:18
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    Rather than build a possibly duplicate answer here, I have chosen to add several links to my answer at workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/40420/… If you don't mind looking there for these links, and letting here whether these links meet your needs :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 18 '15 at 11:01
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    This question is answerable because there are legitimate, solid online resources that provide a comprehensive answer to this question, and all we have to do to answer the question is to point the OP to these resources. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 18 '15 at 11:09
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    I do not think this is a legal question. It's not asking about the legal definition of "reasonable"; it's asking what kinds of accommodations are possible for this situation. In that regard it's similar to our various ergonomics questions. This is on-topic and answerable. – Monica Cellio Jan 19 '15 at 22:12
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Assuming you want to keep them and help them get better, the best thing to do is ask the employee themselves what you can do to help. It may not be things you are legally required to do, but that is a separate matter.

If the employee doesnt know, they should be able to get some guidance from their doctor.

Not everything has to be around sick time. For some kinds of depression, environmental factors like lighting can play a big role - I know people with seasonal depression for whom having a Sun Lamp at work helps a lot. For others changing some job duties or work hours might help.

Everyone handles depression differently, so the best you can do is take advice from your employee and their doctor, and make whatever of those accomodations you can while still getting the work done.

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    Absolutely: There is no fixed list of what is reasonable. If you ever plan to treat someone differently on account of a medical condition, check with the employee that's what they want (sometimes things you think will help actually won't). And remember, it's not your job to make medical assessments: if you'd approve a month's leave for someone undergoing intensive chemotherapy (and most reasonable employers would), be prepared to do the same for depression. If the job is essential, you may need to look into making plans to find people who can do the work on days when your employee can't. – user52889 Jan 21 '15 at 10:36
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From the perspective of someone who has been battling depression on a daily basis for years, here are a couple things that immediately came to mind as things that would benefit me greatly during an "episode" at little to no cost:

  • No more flexible hours as it relates to start time. Having a place you need to be at a certain time every day helps immensely. Perhaps he may not need work all of his hours in one go, but he should get there at the same time every day. Knowing you have to go somewhere vs. knowing you have to go somewhere at a certain time has a huge impact on your mindset, and it minimizes the time you can spend putting it off/dreading doing it.
  • If he has his own office but you have a space where multiple people work, he needs to work in the space with other people. The less time he spends with himself, the better. However, keep in mind putting on a "mask" around people is truly exhausting, so he may require short breaks throughout the day to let his guard down and recharge.
    • Make sure if this goes into place that he knows it's not a punishment for anything, but rather in his best interest, and why.

If you're interested enough, this video of a Stanford lecture is the best, most accurate, and most empathetic explanation of depression that I've ever come across (and as a plus, it isn't boring). In under an hour it explains the major symptoms and a high-level overview of the causes in ways that people who haven't experienced it can understand.

Keep in mind, these suggestions are what would help me, but his mileage may vary. Definitely discuss it with him beforehand (and citing this Q&A may help, as the fact that you're even asking shows some level of investment in helping accommodate him).

If any other things come to mind, I'll edit my answer (unless this gets downvoted into oblivion for not being from a manager's standpoint).

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    +1 These are good ideas that might help. However what is helpful for you may actually be harmful for others. There is no one size fits all solution to depression. I have suffered from depression before and know for me, working side by side with others was such a strain it made me dread going into work. Giving the employee these options is a great idea - but forcing them on someone might just make the problem worse. – Grant Jan 21 '15 at 22:17
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    @Grant yeah, I tried to make that point in the second to last paragraph but I may not have made it as strong of a point as it should be. – Andy Jan 21 '15 at 22:20
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The use of the phrase "reasonable accommodations" tends to indicate you are actually asking a legal question, rather than a personal or practical one, in spite of saying that you aren't looking for legal advice.

Still, consider a few of these possibilities.

You could choose to say "We want you to take a company-paid sabbatical. First help us train someone who can replace you temporarily. Then, we will pay you to get your depression under control, and come back to us in better shape to resume your prior work."

You could choose to say to this employee "We will let you take as much time off as you feel is needed. Just work hard when you can and tell us when you can't. We will help you in any way we can, both professionally, and financially. Somehow, we'll deal with your work when you aren't here."

You could choose to say "The specifics of your role simply cannot accommodate as much time off as you seem to need right now. So, we are bringing in a replacement to fill your unique role. You will be moved to a different, less unique position. But you will retain all your current pay and benefits."

Any of those could be considered "reasonable" from a humanistic perspective.

You could also take a more drastic path.

You could choose to say "We are sorry, but the unique role you play in our small company demands someone able to fill it on a full-time basis. Based solely on your performance, we need you to find another job. We'll give you a generous severance package, great recommendations, and help you in your search for a job which isn't as demanding of your time."

You could choose to say "In fairness to the company, you aren't currently in a position to fill this role on a full-time basis, as indicated by your frequent absences. We are willing to let you reduce your role to part-time, and share the role with another part-timer until you are able to resume full-time work. If you aren't willing to compromise on that, we'll have to ask you to leave."

Aside from the legal ramifications, you need to consider the employee's needs, and value, and you need to consider the company's needs. What is "reasonable" is different in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of a depressed employee, and in the eyes of someone responsible for the needs of a business.

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    uh, firing someone who has depression because they have depression - "great" severance pay or no - is a "great" way to end up in court – bharal Jan 18 '15 at 14:41
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    right. but the context is that they cannot perform their job because of their depression. you're playing a very sneaky game of attacking the "performance", when the real problem - and you tacitly admit that (by giving a generous severance, great recommendations & job hunt help, where you shouldn't be doing that if it is just the performance - especially the recommendations) is the medical issue. – bharal Jan 18 '15 at 16:01
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    if someone then takes you to court on this - man oh man. you can scream "performance!" all you want, but what they have is a federally protected medical condition where no attempt was made to remedy the situation. also, it's pretty immoral, but that's by my ethical compass. – bharal Jan 18 '15 at 16:04
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    The Sabbatical is a great idea. I don't think we can afford to do it (we're a non-profit, on the edge of financial viability as is common in the non-profit world), but it would probably be the best solution for this person at this time if we could. – PurpleVermont Jan 18 '15 at 19:28
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    All questions with a legal aspect are not out of scope. Your answer here shows that you can provide a quality answer to the question with out providing legal opinion, which is what makes a question out of scope. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jan 18 '15 at 20:13
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Make sure you are doing what you can so this person is getting professional help. The therapist may have some recommendations on what you can do in this particular case to support this person.

It may just take some a little patience to wait until this person can get the depression under control.

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