Federal Employee Mental Health Issues on the Rise

Mental health conditions can qualify federal employees for Federal Disability Retirement.

According to the World Health Organization, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. Now, nearly one quarter of the U.S. workforce experiences a mental or substance use disorder each year.   

Mental illnesses cause more lost work time than any other serious health condition and can often be some of the most overlooked issues. And for those federal employees, missing a lot of work can cause even more stress and anxiety– it’s a never-ending cycle.    

Federal positions often require job responsibilities that can pose a high amount of stress on employees. A typical day-to-day activity that may seem simple to one individual may be overwhelming to someone with a mental health issue. The state of a person’s mental health can affect a lot more than their productivity, and while it’s often disregarded, mental health should become a focal point for federal agencies.

Employees with poor mental health directly impact employers and agencies through decreased performance, increased absences, and increased turnover. It’s difficult to show up to work, both physically and mentally, while struggling with a mental health disorder. Federal employees working through the pandemic and facing the daily stressors of their job need solutions to help them live and work in healthy and sustainable ways. For this to happen, it’s important for agencies to understand how to foster a mental health-focused work culture.   

So, how are federal agencies responding?

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has urged agency leaders and managers to work together to cultivate safe work environments that keep the mental well-being of their workforce the highest priority. 

The OPM has encouraged agencies to continue to share the Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) with all federal employees. This response is in hopes to ease the transition back into the office after long periods of telework due to the COVID 19 pandemic. This service emphasizes creating conversations around work-life, grief, and dependent care support.

Additionally, federal employees can also utilize the mental health services built into their Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB). These services can be critical to receiving the proper care and treatment and can help determine how their agency can accommodate their needs.

What if these programs aren’t helping?

Often, the services above are not enough to help federal employees to the point where they are able to continue working. In this case, there is a little-known benefit built right into their FERS package. It’s called Federal Disability Retirement and is available to federal employees who can no longer continue working in their federal job due to a medical condition.

Federal Disability Retirement provides federal employees with four main benefits;

  1. a secure monthly annuity payment based on their high 3 average
  2. creditable years of service until age 62
  3. the option to find a new job in the private sector
  4. and the ability to maintain their health and life insurance.

With mental health cases on the rise and OPM working through their backlog, there’s no better time to apply than right now. You don’t have to continue struggling.

Can Mental Health Conditions Qualify for Federal Disability Retirement?

The short answer is yes! If you and your doctor can provide in-depth medical evidence of your mental health condition preventing you from performing at least one essential job function, then you could be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement.

Your mental health condition must have begun or worsened while in your federal position and your agency must be unable to reasonably accommodate or reassign you. 

Learn more about how to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement.

Common Mental Health Conditions

Here are some common mental illnesses that may qualify you for Federal Disability Retirement:

  • Depression
  • Bi-Polar Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

This list is not exhaustive and there are many more mental health conditions that could qualify you for Federal Disability Retirement. The good news is the OPM does not have a definitive list of conditions that qualify for Federal Disability Retirement, so having in-depth medical documentation is the key to a winning case.

Keep in mind that your disability does not have to be caused by your work for it to be a qualifying medical condition for Federal Disability Retirement. As long as your disability is hindering your performance, attendance, or conduct, it could qualify you for Federal Disability Retirement.

Reasonable Accommodation for Federal Employees

If your disability is preventing you from performing useful and efficient service, your agency must attempt to provide you with a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is any change made to a job, schedule, or work environment that would allow an employee with a disability to successfully perform their job duties. 

It is not necessary to disclose your disability to your employer immediately, but it will be necessary when requesting accommodation. It is important to maintain a clear line of communication with your supervisor and HR department as they play a significant role in the application process.

To request a reasonable accommodation, you must submit the proper paperwork to your supervisor or HR department, along with any additional documentation that they request. 

In order to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement, you must prove to the OPM that there is no accommodation that would allow you to continue to perform all of the essential duties of your position. Keep in mind, modified or light work do not qualify as a reasonable accommodation for Federal Disability Retirement purposes.

If there is no reasonable accommodation available, your agency will automatically try to reassign you. A valid reassignment to the OPM is an existing position, within the same pay and grade level, in your commuting area, that you are qualified for.

What makes a mental health claim different?

The OPM requires more in-depth medical documentation for mental health cases because objective medical evidence is harder to acquire for a mental condition than a physical one. 

However, objective measures cannot be required to prove the existence of a disability for purposes of disability retirement. No laboratory tests or physical examinations exist, or are even known to be possible, to diagnose some psychological disorders. See Vanieken-Ryals v. Office Personnel Management, 107 LRP 67536, 508 F.3d 1034 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

While physical conditions are often easier to show deficiencies based on needs or restrictions, mental condition restrictions are often more ambiguous, less measurable, and less apparent to coworkers and supervisors. This can make it harder for the OPM to make a decision. 

Additionally, treatment compliance is highly emphasized with mental health conditions. If the OPM finds that you have not been following your doctor’s recommendations, you will likely not be approved for this benefit. Treatment for mental health conditions usually revolves around therapies and medications, which typically do not pose undue risks to the patient. 

While the process may be intimidating, do not let it deter you from applying as Federal Disability Retirement could benefit you and your family for years to come.

Leah Bachmeyer-Killie is the Associate Attorney at Harris Federal Law Firm. She graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 2013 and has been working full time at Harris Federal since. She is passionate about improving the lives of federal employees. Contact Leah at (877) 226-2723 or schedule a free consultation online.