By Dan Gephart, May 19, 2021
As we careen toward the eventual return to workplace normalcy, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are as a workforce after more than a year of pandemic-enforced remote work.
Although not geared to the federal workforce, a recent survey of US- and UK-based employers conducted by Arizona State University and the Rockefeller Foundation provides a great snapshot.
Let’s start with the good news. Most employers say that employee engagement and productivity are up. Even better, 44 percent of employers surveyed say morale has risen as well.
The bad news? Employers are seriously concerned about mental health. Half of those surveyed have increased the use of available company resources related to mental health since the pandemic began.
I surmise three points from the survey:
- Telework was more successful than many thought it would be.
- There will be a significant increase in reasonable accommodation requests by employees dealing with mental health challenges, and many of those will likely be for anxiety disorders.
- Many of those accommodation requests will be for telework.
As the moderator for many FELTG webinars and virtual training events, I relay your questions to our presenters. So I know that few things cause more anxiety for federal supervisors as reasonable accommodations and, more specifically, requests for telework. But here’s the thing: If you’re too worried to address employee anxieties and other mental health issues, then that increase in engagement and morale is going to sink faster than an Elon Musk comedy skit on Saturday Night Live. So I’m offering four tips for you to keep in mind for the upcoming months:
- Don’t delay the interactive process, and take the right approach. Let me repeat: Do not delay. I can’t tell you how to feel, but if you’re seriously trying to avoid this process, then you may be in the wrong position. The law requires prompt action. This is the stuff that being a federal supervisor is made of. The employee has the best information about his/her/their functional limitations. You, presumably, have the best knowledge about the work. Go into the process with an open mind and work with the employee to find the most effective accommodation.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for medical documentation, and ask for the right information. Agencies are entitled to medical documentation as part of the reasonable accommodation process. But that information must be related to determining the existence of a disability and the necessity for an accommodation. Anything beyond that is not necessary. Remember there are two reasons you may want medical documentation. Yes, you want to substantiate the need for accommodation. But the medical documentation can also help you understand the functional limitations. Keep in mind that supervisors don’t generally handle medical documentation, so check your agency’s policy on who is responsible for these requests.
- Don’t automatically rule out telework, and ensure there is accountability. Look, skepticism about telework may be warranted at times, but it’s about as fashionable as socks and sandals on a middle-aged man. Remember the study at the top of this story? Productivity is up while employees work en masse from home. Depending on the job, many people can work from home. Maybe the problem is you? Out of sight should not mean out of mind. Find the best way to monitor the work and stay engaged with the employee. And if performance slips, hold the employee accountable using the FELTG tools, just as you would if the employee worked in a cubicle outside your office.
- Don’t get frustrated, and get some training. As always, FELTG has multiple opportunities for you to get up to speed on these issues. Here are a few:
- June 2: EEO Challenges: COVID-19 and a Return to Workplace Normalcy. In this half-day virtual training, attorney Katherine Atkinson will provide guidance on a whole host of challenges involving vaccines, pandemic-related harassment, and more. She’ll also provide a framework for handling these challenges that you can apply to other yet unforeseen challenges.
- July 13: Disability Accommodation in 60 Minutes. During this installment of our annual Supervisory Webinar Series, FELTG President Deborah Hopkins will cover the requests for accommodation, the interactive process and much more, all in one hour.
- Starting July 15: Reasonable Accommodation in the Federal Workplace. This five-webinar series will tackle several reasonable accommodation challenges, including specific sessions on Accommodating Invisible Disabilities (July 22) and Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation (July 29).
- July 21: Dealing With Mental Health Challenges During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. During this half-day virtual training, Licensed Clinical Social Work Shana Palmieri will de-stigmatize the truth about “mental illness” and will explain the impact various mental health conditions have on individuals, and those with whom they work. She’ll also provide strategies for effectively supervising and managing employees with these conditions, whether they’re in the office or working remotely. [Editor’s note: Read Shana’s article Impact of COVID on Stress, Mental Health]
- July 26-30: The Post-Pandemic Federal Workplace: Managing Accountability and EEO Challenges. This weeklong event (each day of training runs from 12:30 – 4 pm ET) offers the most timely and up-to-date accountability and EEO training you’ll find. And it culminates on the last day, when you get to apply everything you learned earlier in the week about managing conduct, performance, leave issues and EEO in a telework setting.
Keep an eye out for other upcoming FELTG webinars and virtual training events. [email protected]