About 40 million American adults or approximately 18% of the population suffers from an anxiety disorder according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This makes anxiety disorders the most common mental illness in the United States. Excessive anxiety can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships, at a certain level, it could meet the definition of a disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Since almost 1 in 5 adults suffers from an anxiety disorder, it is likely that an employer with five or more employees (and therefore subject to FEHA) will have an employee who suffers from an anxiety disorder.
What is an employer’s obligation if it learns that an employee suffers from anxiety and it’s affecting the employee’s ability to work?
Assuming that an employee suffers from severe or chronic disorder that interferes with their activities of daily living (not merely the occasional anxiety that we may feel when faced with uncertainty, a micro-manager, or the like), below are some basic steps an employer should follow.
- Remember the objective. The objective with disability accommodation, whether it’s for a mental or physical disability, is to find a way to help a disabled employee perform the essential functions of his or her job.
- Talk. Once you learn that an employee suffers from anxiety (or any other mental or emotional disorder such as depression or PTDS) and needs modifications in their work or in the workplace because of their anxiety, engage in a dialogue. This is a legally required process called engaging in the interactive process and not merely good management. Remember to keep the conversation on work restrictions and not the medical condition itself.
- Gather Information. Gather all the documents that will help you find a reasonable accommodation (modification in the standard ways of doing work) for the employee. These documents include: the employee’s job description, department expectations, and performance evaluations. Also ask the employee for a detailed description of his or her limitations.
- Evaluate. Once you’ve gathered the documentation and considered the information available, consider how the limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance? What specific job tasks become difficult as a result of the limitations? What modifications can the employer provide to reduce or eliminate these problems?
- Provide a reasonable accommodation if one (or several) exists. The employee’s restrictions will guide you in determining whether a reasonable accommodation exists to help the employee return to work despite his or her restrictions. For someone suffering from severe anxiety or depression, reasonable accommodations include, but are not limited to, (1) job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies; (2) modified break scheduled; (3) rest area or quiet private space to retreat to when necessary; (4) support animal; (5) support person; and (6) reduce identified triggers.
- Explain your decision. Communication is key and explaining your decision to your employee is an important part of the interactive process. Once an accommodation is in place, continue to check in with the employee to make sure that everything is working well for both of you.
The difficult part about determining whether a reasonable accommodation exists is that there is no bright line rule on how hard an employer must try to find a reasonable accommodation. This is why disability discrimination is one of the most highly litigated issues in employment law.
Schedule a call if you need assistance with the accommodation process.
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