How to Adapt for Employees and Interns With Mental Illnesses

Super Julie BraunBusinesses, How To, Internship ProgramsLeave a Comment

Written by Tia Langhout and Gregory Stump
Edited by Michael Howard

Americans With Disabilities

In the past, employers have shunned hiring personnel that admitted to having a mental illness. Unfortunately, by doing so, they not only missed out on some fantastic potential workers but also violated the ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA makes it unlawful to disqualify someone for a job because of a disability when reasonable accommodations are available. However, as the awareness of psychological disorders increases, so does the realization that interns or employees with mental disabilities can still be an asset to any company. With a few simple measures, you can create an environment that is friendly for most mental illnesses while following policies that adhere to the law.

The Numbers and the Effect on Business

Almost 1 in 5 adults have or will experience a mental illness in a given year. Out of those adults, 56% will not receive treatment for it. Unfortunately, psychological disorders are not only incredibly common in America, but incredibly costly as well. According to DiversityInc, $105 billion is lost annually in corporate America due to lost productivity caused by untreated mental illnesses. That’s a significant amount of income to lose when a few simple steps could drastically reduce that lost revenue.

Creating procedures to accommodate and help those who struggle with a disorder will generate considerable benefits for your company and your employees. These same actions may even benefit those who don’t have a psychological disorder. According to the world’s largest grassroots mental health organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, taking steps to help those with psychological conditions can allow companies to combat absenteeism,  inflated health care costs, and reduce short-term and long-term disability. Additionally, an employer that recognizes the need for mental health programs will create a higher level of loyalty, productivity, and retention in their employees.

It’s understandable that you may have a lot of questions or believe that the process is complicated. However, creating a mental illness friendly workplace is more straightforward than you may think. Here are a few beginning steps for building an atmosphere that is friendly for those who struggle with psychological ailments.

Vision Statement

To develop a mental illness friendly workplace, start at the top and work down. Inclusive leaders will create inclusive employees, and in turn, an inclusive workplace. The first step that employers should take is to combat the stigma of mental illness publicly.

Frequently this step is accomplished by creating a vision statement and a set of objectives that companies will distribute to everyone in the business setting. A well-crafted vision statement that is specific and succinct will inspire employees to acknowledge these invisible illnesses as severe and real conditions.


While vision statements may voice the company policy, it is only a starting point. Educating employees and interns about mental illnesses start breaking away the stigma that follows these invisible illnesses. You probably think that you don’t have time to hold educational meetings to discuss depression, anxiety disorders, or stress. Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as it seems. The company e-newsletter or email is a great way to share educational material from a trusted source. One such source, created by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation is the Center for Workplace Mental Health. Here you can find educational articles on everything from depression and anxiety to postpartum depression and PTSD.

Accommodations for Employees and Interns

Education is an excellent start to implementing an inclusive atmosphere but does little when addressing the job-related issues that employees face. There are a lot of ways to accommodate someone who’s struggling: four critical areas of concern are concentration, emotional distress, fatigue, and attendance.

Lack of concentration

Lack of concentration is often one of the most visible signs of psychological distress. However, you can overcome this problem. One method to help those who are having difficulty is to provide written instructions by email or newsletter. Additionally, checklists that break large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks help the employee realize they are making progress and maintains their focus. Digital calendars with automatic reminders are also a fantastic method to keep someone on schedule!

Emotional distress

Emotional distress can be the most intimidating problem to deal with. However, with the proper programs and atmosphere, it may be as simple as giving the employee a little time off. Allowing workers to take mental health days can significantly reduce the overall stress that is triggering their emotional distress. While this may seem counterintuitive, the increased productivity and loyalty will overcome the small amount of lost time.

An additional means of overcoming emotional distress is to allow workers to make a phone call to an Employee Assistance Program(EAP). As part of your mental health program, EAP counselors will assist employees and interns with personal and professional problems and help them get past the stressors they are struggling with. However, unlike other options mentioned, EAPs are services that employers pay for and in turn, expect the investment to pay off in increased productivity and a reduction in overall health care costs.

Fatigue and Attendance

Two distinct issues that employees and interns may struggle with are fatigue and attendance. However, the solutions can be the same. Those who struggle with mental illness often have difficulty sleeping or may have regular therapy appointments. Both situations can cause someone to be late or miss work entirely. Two possible solutions for this are to either implement flexible work hours or to allow employees and interns to work virtually.

These are just a few things that can be implemented to create a safe atmosphere for those with mental illnesses. Remember that any movement toward an inclusive space is a huge step forward. For additional steps to develop a mental health friendly workplace, visit DiversityInc. If you are unsure if these steps are right for you, you may want to test them by creating a virtual internship program.

Why Virtual Internships Benefit Employers

Virtual internships are great for the business because they will get the best work out of their employee. They won’t have to worry about them becoming worn down from the demands of an office atmosphere. It’s also an excellent way to start easing into the hiring process. It helps the business and employer get to know the employee better before agreeing to hire them.

The business owner, employee, and intern all benefit from virtual internships. The employee can work from anywhere, and on their own time. This opportunity is an excellent chance for an employee with a mental illness to take time to recover if needed. They can even work at 3 a.m. if that’s when they’re most creative. This environment creates a safe place to learn how to work with a mental illness.

How to Combine the Two

Creating a virtual internship program for your business offers a perfect stepping stone to creating a mental illness friendly workplace. This option helps companies learn how to manage remote work programs to assist their employees when necessary. They can help the organization learn which steps are vital to creating a safe environment that so many people need. It will be a learning process for both parties until it becomes ironed out.

Businesses use internships to determine if a person is a good fit as an employee. Not every intern will match the culture, and that’s perfectly okay. Chances are, there is a better place for that intern or employee in the long run. If you determine they are a good fit, you will help them thrive while managing their invisible illness. Some of the most caring, creative and driven people are among those with psychological disabilities, and you want them on your team.

To learn how to create your virtual work program or to find virtual interns, go to