If you are suffering from a disability and genuinely need to minimize stress to treat it or to cope with it, you may be able to ask your employer for a change to lower your work stress. Whether you would be legally entitled to this accommodation depends on a number of things. All jobs entail some level of stress, and stress can be caused by any number of things in the workplace. Therefore, it’s an easier claim to establish if your disability is more severe, if your need is more urgent, and if the proposed change is easier for your employer to make.
How to Ask for Help
Under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, a covered employer must provide a qualified employee who has a disability with a reasonable accommodation to perform the job, as long as the accommodation will not cause an undue hardship for the employer. Such an accommodation must be necessary for the employee. Both sides must engage in an interactive process where they at least try, in good faith, to reach a mutually agreeable change to the job.
If you suffer from a condition that worsens if you are under stress, or if you need to lessen your job’s stress due to your treatment, finding a way to decrease work stress may be a reasonable accommodation. Depending on your needs and duties, you can achieve stress reduction by one of the following:
- a temporary demotion, change in job position, or change in work site;
- a change in schedule or a reduction in hours;
- elimination of more stressful duties or transferring those duties to co-workers;
- provision or extension of work breaks;
- an environmental change to provide a quieter or less distracting work area; or
- an adjustment to allow you to work at home.
Your Request Needs to Be Specific
In a case in federal court in New Hampshire, Posteraro v. RBS Citizens, N.A., the plaintiff, bank employee Jennifer Posteraro, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of an earlier abusive relationship. Though she initially did well at her position, her supervisor became very aggressive with her, citing her failure to meet her sales goals. He began yelling at her, which caused Posteraro to suffer from panic attacks.
Posteraro asked to be provided with a “peaceful calm environment where [she] didn’t feel threatened for [her] safety emotionally or physically.” More specifically, she asked to be moved to a non-retail branch position that did not involve interacting with the public. She also asked for other accommodations, including medical leaves and working in another branch, which the company had granted previously.
There were no non-branch job openings available, so Posteraro resigned. Judge Joseph Laplante decided that Posteraro’s request for a “peaceful calm environment” was too vague to be considered a legitimate request for accommodation under the ADA or state law. Therefore, the judge ruled that the bank did not have to meet that request and dismissed Posteraro’s disability discrimination claims.
As this case demonstrates, you should come up with specific requests that will address your needs if you need to decrease your work stress. Simply asking for reduced stress may not do you any good. Discuss your job with your physician, including your work responsibilities, what specific aspects are causing you stress, and how you could lessen the stress without causing major problems for your employer.
Employer Must Do More Than Just Agree to the Accommodation
You may be relieved and happy if your employer agrees to your proposed accommodation, but you might not be out of the woods yet. An employer might not actually follow through and carry out the accommodation or may do so only partially. That was the case of an employer in Washington.
Another stress-related disability case brought in federal court under Washington state law is Edman v. Kindred Nursing Centers West, LLC. In that case, David Edman had worked as a food services manager at a nursing home. He suffered from HIV and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer. By the summer of 2013, Edman had lost weight, and other employees had started voicing concerns about his health. He was written up for yelling at a nurse and a vendor. Edman said his health affected his disposition.
In August, Edman went on a medical leave and cut back to part time upon his return. Edman was diagnosed and treated for his cancer. Though his doctor felt he was sufficiently disabled to collect Social Security disability benefits, Edman returned to full-time work. To do so, he asked that his employer keep “stress levels as low as possible” and allow him “adequate rest,” uninterrupted 30-minute lunches, and weekly meetings with his supervisor. His employer agreed to those changes. However, there was evidence that it didn’t actually follow through and comply with them.
The employer argued that it did accommodate Edman, so the court should dismiss his claims. Edman asserted that the accommodations were ineffective, worsening his condition. He said that the nursing home failed to discuss the situation and engage in an interactive process to work out an appropriate accommodation.
Edman presented evidence that his lunches were interrupted, that weekly meetings did not take place as scheduled, and that he was forced to work longer hours, adding to his stress and further destabilizing his compromised immune system. Edman complained to management that it wasn’t actually accommodating his disability. The employer never responded, nor did it take any action to resolve the problem. The court declined the employer’s motion for summary judgment and allowed the case to go to trial.
If you have already asked your employer for an accommodation and haven’t received one, ask why not. Find out what the problem is, see whether you can resolve it, and ask again for an accommodation.
Summing It Up
A reduction in the stress level in your job might be a reasonable accommodation for your disability if you need to manage your stress and if the accommodation won’t create an undue burden for your employer. To maximize your chance of success, follow these steps:
- Consult with your physician and come up with a detailed request for accommodation.
- If your employer does not respond to your request, ask why, and try to resolve whatever is causing the problem.
- If your employer refuses to grant your request, try to work out an alternative that will work for both sides.
- If your company agrees to the accommodation but then doesn’t actually grant it, drags its feet, or only grants it halfheartedly, talk to your manager again. Remind your company of its agreement and obligations.
If you have any questions, want help dealing with your employer, or feel like management is giving you the runaround, contact our office. We can talk about your situation, tell you how the law may apply, and let you know how we can help.