Are you operating in the red zone at work because you are always exhausted? Unable to continue, should you quit or risk being fired?
Your choices may not be that drastic. You may be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For background, check out our previous post, “Three Ways to Protect Yourself If Chronic Sleep Deprivation Is Affecting Your Job.”
Here’s a (slightly modified to protect confidentiality) real-life version of a client we helped out of just such a situation.
Veronica, a lawyer with a decade of experience, had what seemed to be a plum job offer land in her lap—a chance to start and grow a clinical law practice for clients with special education needs at an Ivy League law school. The position required her to move across the country, uprooting her family and two young children, and to sign a three-year commitment. The law school indicated the hours would be reasonable, particularly because she would have two other full-time clinic staff attorneys to report to her.
It didn’t happen quite that way.
When Veronica started, she only had one full-time assistant. The dean of clinical practices said that, due to unexpected budget cuts, there would only be one. But he assured her that they would limit the clinic’s clients to a number she could handle with one full-time staff member.
It didn’t quite happen that way. The clinic was hugely popular and attracted many applicants. Veronica loved the students’ enthusiasm and greatly enjoyed working with them. But trying to build the clinic curriculum while overseeing students as they assisted with cases in litigation turned out to be a 60-hour-a-week job.
And then the other full-time staff attorney quit, saying that the stress was too much. The dean said he would actively search for another attorney to join the clinic.
Determined to “make this work,” Veronica doubled her efforts. Her health and her family paid the price. When she wasn’t at the clinic—which often was until after 7:00—she was on the phone with a student about clinic work.
Her husband, who left his job to follow Veronica, did his best to play full-time dad and took over all household duties, including the care of their two girls, ages three and seven. But after a few months of dealing with the stress of running a household and being a “clinic widow,” his patience began to wear thin. When Veronica got to spend time with her husband, they often fought.
Veronica found a doctor and went to see her about getting a prescription for a sleep aid like Ambien. After the doctor took Veronica’s medical history and listened to her about her current health problems, she told Veronica she likely suffered from clinical anxiety and perhaps depression.
Although at first resistant, Veronica eventually agreed to see a psychiatrist in the same practice, who diagnosed with Veronica with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression. He prescribed sleeping aids and antidepressants.
Realizing that both her family and her health were at risk, Veronica decided that she had to leave her job.
What Happened Next
Veronica initially resolved to go to the dean and hand in her resignation. But the day before she planned to quit, she decided that she should talk with a lawyer first.
When Veronica came to see us, she just wanted to know whether she could ask her law school to pay her expenses to move back to her home state. Under her contract, the school had to pay her moving expenses if she decided to leave at the end of her three-year term. She felt that the school had failed to live up to its end of the bargain by not staffing the clinic as promised.
As I talked to her about what led to her decision to resign, it was clear to me that she was arguably covered under the ADA, which Congress broadened in 2009 to protect, among other things, those suffering from temporary conditions, including mental conditions.
Acting on our advice, Veronica e-mailed human resources for the law school, briefly described her health issue, and noted that she needed accommodations under the law, including regular hours and weekends off.
I also talked to her doctor, and she was prepared to write a letter in support.
The law school responded the next day, asking Veronica to meet with human resources. Fortunately, the meeting was productive (not always the case, unfortunately), with human resources developing a plan to get Veronica relief.
By the end of the week, the school brought in an attorney from another clinic to help with the caseload and limited her working hours to 45 per week.
Even with this help, Veronica told the law school that she would prefer to leave and return to her former home. Not only did the law school agree, but it also offered her a $15,000 settlement to waive any claims that she might have against the university (even though Veronica had no plans to file a lawsuit).
Summing It Up
- Even temporary conditions like clinical anxiety and depression may be covered by the ADA.
- Get medical care and make sure your doctor knows how your condition is affecting your work.
- If you suffer from one of these conditions, do not quit your job before you talk to your attorney about your options.
- Inform your employer about your condition and any changes you need in your work to continue in your job.