Kellie G. Olah
SPHR, CVPM, SHRM-SCP
HR Huddle columnist Kellie Olah is the practice management and human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors. The company provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians nationwide. Olah is a certified veterinary practice manager, a certified veterinary business leader and a nationally certified senior professional in human resources.Read Articles Written by Kellie G. Olah
Picture this: An associate veterinarian with a good attendance history called off for the third time in two weeks. When she returns to work, the doctor explains that she suffers from clinical depression to the point where she can’t always get out of bed. She also experiences panic attacks. You sympathize with her but aren’t sure how to respond.
If a similar scenario hasn’t happened at your practice, just wait; it will. That’s because veterinary industry workers experience higher than average levels of anxiety, depression and suicide ideation compared with the overall population, according to a landmark study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. (Learn more at bit.ly/2EENIZR.)
Knowing how to respond in situations like the one above is crucial, and this article will help. I’ll use the pronoun “she” throughout for simplicity’s sake.
Formal Accommodation Requests
If your practice lacks a process for how employees with a disability formally request accommodations — or maybe it’s time to review and update your policies — consider hiring an adviser. The Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org) has plenty of free sample forms. You can customize them, but ask your adviser to review the final draft.
Forms you should have ready access to include:
- Request for Accommodation (for the employee).
- Request for Disability-Related Information (for the employee’s doctor).
- Approval/Denial of Accommodations (for the practice).
- Monitoring Implemented Accommodations (for the practice)
After the employee makes a formal request, ask that her doctor or therapist complete a form describing her disability and the needed accommodations. The paperwork verifies the disability and helps you better understand it. At that point, you must determine whether the practice can reasonably meet the accommodations.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if you employ more than 15 people, you’re probably required to provide reasonable accommodations upon request. Even if you have fewer than 15, state and local laws might mandate reasonable accommodations. In the absence of a mandate, do your best to accommodate an employee. It’s an integral part of building a healthy workplace culture, one that helps you recruit and retain quality team members.
What’s reasonable? According to the Washington, D.C., Office of Disability Rights, reasonable accommodations vary. For example:
- No-tech: Cost virtually no money; just time and creativity.
- Low-tech: Fairly simple and often inexpensive.
- High-tech: More sophisticated (costly) technology.
When determining if and how you can accommodate an employee experiencing depression, for example, consider the symptoms. Not all people with clinical depression have the same ones, although common signs can include problems with attentiveness and concentration, emotion control and anger, stamina, time management, memory, organization and planning, stress management, and prioritizing.
You need to know:
- Which symptoms are problematic for your employee?
- How do they affect her daily work or her tasks on more challenging days?
- What accommodations might help?
In cases involving the management of stress, anxiety and clinical depression, consider:
- Calming apps: Depending on the employee’s job, she might be able to listen to recordings between appointments or on work breaks. Or maybe soothing music can be played at a low volume around her, or perhaps her duties permit the wearing of earplugs playing calming white noise.
- Support animal: The unconditional love that a support animal provides can help people who experience anxiety and depression. Trained dogs can identify signs of an impending panic attack, for example.
- Flexible schedule: Adjusting someone’s work hours can be more challenging, although some practices find solutions, such as later start and end times for an employee who needs extra time to prepare for the day and orient herself for the work shift.
- Modified break schedule: This solution can be as straightforward as allowing the employee to take deep-breathing breaks throughout the day. The lulls might be relatively short but taken more often.
Being flexible with an employee who needs to see a doctor or therapist during an especially challenging time can reduce her stress and anxiety all by itself.
Another issue might involve an employee dealing with mental health challenges who asks for a different supervisor. In general, you aren’t required to make the accommodation, but supervisors might need to modify how they engage with the employee. For example, suppose anxiety or depression causes the employee to become distracted easily. In that case, an accommodation might include the supervisor giving more frequent reminders of her tasks or providing instructions in more manageable chunks.
A leave of absence can fall under the umbrella of reasonable accommodation, but businesses typically pursue other avenues, except in extreme situations.
WORKERS’ COMP CASES
According to the Job Accommodation Network, the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t necessarily apply to workers’ compensation claims. “The ADA does not require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee with an occupational injury who does not have a disability as defined by the ADA,” the government-sponsored service noted. For a comprehensive list of disabilities and accommodations, visit bit.ly/3aGZlhH.
Besides supporting a productive work environment for your employees, you’ll want to provide clients with a positive experience. Some pet owners might have mobility challenges and need space to navigate, while others need documents printed in a larger font. In addition, some clients might have trouble speaking, and others can’t hear you.
I suggest envisioning yourself as a client with a specific disability who enters and navigates the public areas of your building. Where do potential issues arise? List them. Then visualize a client with a different disability and repeat the process.
Finally, identify solutions. Automatic doors and large-print signs could be two fixes, for example.