Mental Health Issues at Work: 5 Things Employees Need to Know

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

If you suffer from a mental health condition, are you entitled to the same protections against discrimination that you’d be entitled to if you had a physical medical condition? Does your employer have to do anything to accommodate your condition? Do you still have the right to keep your medical condition private?

Generally speaking, the answer to all of these questions is yes, although a more complete answer requires further explanation.

The Americans With Disabilities Act

An employee’s primary protection against workplace harassment and discrimination as a result of a disability is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA defines a disability as any of the following:

  • having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, which include basic tasks such as lifting, walking, eating, caring for oneself, regulating emotions, thinking, concentrating, sleeping, and communicating with others;
  • having a record of such an impairment; or
  • or being regarded as having such an impairment.

Despite having an ADA-recognized disability, an employee must also be “otherwise qualified” for the job. This means an employee will need the necessary skills, education, and experience to perform his or her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Reasonable accommodations are changes an employer can make so that a disabled employee can perform a specific job. Employers subject to the ADA must provide these reasonable accommodations, unless such accommodations would be very expensive or difficult to implement.

Basically, if you have a mental health issue that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and your employer can provide reasonable accommodations, then you will be protected by the ADA and enjoy the same work-related rights and opportunities as any other employee.

To make sure these rights are honored and protected, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) publishes guidance and references to help employees and employers understand their rights and responsibilities. Late last year, the EEOC released an online publication, “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights,” in response to the increasing prevalence of workplace disability discrimination involving mental health issues. Some of the publication’s key points are discussed below.

What Employees Should Know

The EEOC interprets the ADA very broadly to provide the most protection possible to employees. For example, the EEOC states that a mental health condition doesn’t have to be significant or permanent to qualify for ADA protection. As long as your mental health condition is substantially limiting, it will probably be considered a disability under the ADA.

The EEOC also claims that serious mental health conditions, such as major depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, are very likely to qualify as disabilities under the ADA.

Your Rights and Responsibilities as an Employee

1. As a Disabled Employee, You Must Still Be Able to Do the Job

If you are found to be a disabled employee, your disability will entitle you to special protections. However, you will not be held to a lower employment standard as a result of that disability. The purpose of the ADA is to level the employment playing field, not tilt it in favor of a disabled employee.

Therefore, despite having a disability, you must still be able to perform the essential functions of the job and not pose a substantial risk of harm to yourself or other employees. If you can’t meet both of these conditions, an employer would be well within its rights to fire you.

However, if an employer decides to fire a disabled employee, the decision must be an individual assessment based on objective evidence showing that the individual cannot perform the job or poses a safety risk, even with a reasonable accommodation. In other words, the employer cannot rely on “myths or stereotypes” about a disability.

Take, for example, an employee who is a military veteran with PTSD. An employer cannot fire such an employee on the belief that most military veterans who have PTSD will have unexpected and violent outbursts at work. Even if this stereotype were true (and for the record, it is not), an employer has to make its decision through sound medical judgment based on an individual assessment of that particular military veteran employee.

2. You Must Provide Some Medical Information to Your Employer

In exercising your rights as an employee under the ADA, you will have to provide some otherwise private medical information. There are least four situations where an employee may need to provide medical information to the employer:

  • An employee has requested a reasonable accommodation for a disability.
  • An employer has made a job offer and is asking all applicants for the same medical information.
  • An employer is choosing to engage in affirmative action for individuals with disabilities. In these situations, an employee may decline to provide the requested medication information.
  • There is objective evidence that an employee may be unable to accomplish his or her job or may pose a safety risk to others because of a disability.

3. The Employer Must Keep Your Medical Information Private

Employers must maintain the confidentiality of their employees’ medical information. This means your employer must take steps to avoid unnecessarily disclosing your medical information and to keep others from accessing that information. For example, your medical file must be kept separate from your personnel file.

4. You Must Take Steps to Assert Your Rights Under the ADA

The burden to obtain a reasonable accommodation is on you as the disabled employee. You must ask for a reasonable accommodation from the “appropriate person” at your job; you cannot expect your employer to take the initiative and provide such an accommodation. The appropriate person will usually be your supervisor or human resources manager.

You must make the request in writing. Additionally, you will need to explain what kinds of accommodations you need and the medical basis for the accommodations.

5. Your Request for an Accommodation Must Be Reasonable

The EEOC details what may constitute a reasonable or unreasonable accommodation. Typical accommodations that are considered reasonable for employees suffering from mental health issues include modifying work schedules, changing management methods, creating a quiet office space, reassigning an employee to a different location or assignment, and providing leave.

Summing It Up

  • The ADA prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment on the basis of an employee’s disability, including many mental health conditions.
  • If you are an employee with an ADA-recognized disability, you must still be able to do your job, and you cannot pose a substantial threat to yourself or your co-workers.
  • To exercise your rights under the ADA, you must proactively request reasonable accommodations and share related medical information with your employer.
  • Your employer must keep your medical information confidential.
  • Your employer must take reasonable steps to accommodate your disability, but accommodations aren’t required if they would require significant expense or difficulty.