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Is an employer obligated to avoid discriminating against employees based on psychiatric disabilities?

Does the ADA Cover Psychiatric Disabilities?

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 20% of the population will experience a psychiatric disability during their lifetime. Given how common mental health issues are, the workplace is a common area where the needs of employees with psychiatric conditions may clash with the way management wants and needs to run an operation.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws prohibit employment discrimination against those with disabilities, physical or otherwise. Disabilities may include, depending on the facts of the case, psychiatric conditions. Also, employers may have an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee with a psychiatric disability, just as if it were a physical disability zql1fhg. Employers are also prohibited from segregating or treating employees negatively because of their psychiatric conditions.

Which Employees Are Covered by the ADA?

To qualify for ADA protection, the employee or job candidate needs to be “otherwise qualified” for the job. In other words, the employee must have the required skills, experience, and education and meet the requirements of the position, including being able to perform the essential functions of the job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation. If the person is too severely disabled to perform those essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation, he or she is not qualified for the job. If that is the case, the employer can terminate the employee or refuse to hire the candidate.

A mental impairment or psychiatric condition that substantially limits a major life activity, including working, sleeping, or thinking, can qualify as a disability under the ADA. An employee may also fall under the ADA in the following circumstances:

  • there is a record that the employee has a disabling mental impairment;
  • the employee is perceived as having a mental impairment, even if he or she doesn’t actually have that condition;
  • the employee lacks a mental health condition but is associated with a person with such a condition, such as a spouse or family member, and suffers discrimination as a result; or
  • he or she complains of discrimination due to a psychiatric disability or seeks a reasonable accommodation and suffers retaliation as a result.

If a mental health condition, whether treated or not, would “substantially limit” one or more major life activities, the person with the condition should be considered disabled under the ADA. “Major life activities” include neurological functions such as communicating, concentrating, eating, sleeping, regulating thoughts or emotions, caring for oneself, and interacting with others.

The condition need not lead to serious functional limitations to be considered “substantially limiting.” It may qualify by merely making activities more difficult, uncomfortable, or time-consuming compared to the way that most of us perform those activities. The fact that symptoms come and go doesn’t necessarily mean that the condition is not a disability. The issue is how limiting the symptoms are when they’re present.

What Reasonable Accommodations May Be Available?

If an employee has a psychiatric condition that qualifies as a disability, he or she may be entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA if those accommodations are needed to perform a function of the position. Possible accommodations could include:

  • a schedule change, a reassignment of marginal duties to other employees, or an agreement for medications to be taken during a shift; or
  • physical changes to the workplace that may aid in concentrating, such as partitions or visual barriers between workstations, soundproofing an employee’s workspace, or relocating an employee to a less noisy or distracting area.

If an employee’s ability to communicate or respond to direction is limited, it may be reasonable to request that the supervisor adjust his or her management or communications style. To do this, supervisors may need additional training or a job coach so they can effectively assist an employee in overcoming disability-related limitations. The supervisor may also need to communicate with a disabled employee in the most effective way for that employee, be it orally, in writing, via e-mail, through voice messages, or in some other way, even when that method may not be the supervisor’s preference.

The duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled employees is triggered when the employer becomes aware of the condition and the need for the accommodation. It may not be obvious that employees have a mental health impairment, and the condition itself may impair employees’ awareness of their impairment or their ability to communicate a need for an accommodation.

Disabled employees would normally notify the employer of their impairment and ask for an accommodation. Unfortunately, many disabled employees fear that disclosing their disability will result in a loss of privacy, especially if a disability carries with it a social stigma, as psychiatric disabilities often do. Management can ask employees to identify the specific disability to determine whether the accommodation is necessary, but they should keep that information separate from the personnel file, and only those employees who need to know about it should be privy to it.

If no request is made for an accommodation, the employer is generally under no obligation to provide one. If the employee asks for an accommodation but doesn’t specify what accommodation is needed, the employee and management should work together to come up with possible solutions. To do this, there should be an individualized assessment of the person and his or her job duties. Employers need to avoid preconceived stereotypes of people with mental impairments in general or those with the worker’s diagnosis in particular. Through this assessment, management can better understand the employee’s disability and its impact on job performance.

Employers covered by the ADA have a legal duty to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. An undue hardship must create a significant difficulty or expense. Whether there is such a hardship depends on the facts of the case: the size and resources of the employer, the cost of the accommodation, and the resulting disruption to the workforce and work processes. If an employer rejects a possible reasonable accommodation because it would cause an undue hardship, the employer must engage in an interactive process with the employee to try to find an alternative that would work for both sides.

The ADA prevents discrimination against individuals with psychiatric disabilities in all aspects of employment, not just by requiring a reasonable accommodation. It prohibits an employer from treating a qualified individual with a disability unfavorably because of his or her disability. This unfavorable treatment could include harassment, a failure to hire or promote, unequal pay or conditions, or termination of employment.

Summing It Up

The ADA’s coverage does extend to employees with psychiatric disabilities.

  • Whether a person qualifies as disabled depends on the facts of the case. A major life activity must be substantially impaired, but the impairment cannot be so severe that the person can’t do the job at all.
  • If necessary, reasonable accommodations to allow the person to perform the functions of the job are required by the law. What those accommodations are should be worked out between the employee and management. An accommodation that causes an undue hardship to the employer is not required.
  • The ADA also prohibits adverse employment actions based on a person’s disability (such as harassment, failure to hire or promote, or termination) and retaliation for complaining of discrimination or for asking for a reasonable accommodation.

If you believe that you qualify under the ADA because of a psychiatric disability and feel that you’ve been discriminated against at work or denied a reasonable accommodation, contact our office. We can talk about your situation, about how the law may apply to you, and about what you can do to protect your rights and interests.

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