Mental Health Issues at Work and the ADA


Do you suffer from feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression? Does it affect your professional life? If the answer to both questions is yes, you’re not alone. Not only are you not alone, but you’re in the majority.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America 2006 Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey, 56% of respondents admitted that stress and anxiety affect their performance in the workplace, while 51% of respondents said these problems affected their professional relationships. But how serious are mental health problems for employers, and how does the ADA protect employees who suffer from mental health problems?

The Cost of Mental Illness

anx32The Guardian’s recent article titled “50 Million Years of Work Could Be Lost to Anxiety and Depression” discusses a study by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO found that over the next 14 years, given current mental health treatment trends, depression and anxiety will be responsible for a loss of 50 million years of work time. In financial terms, this adds up to an annual loss of $925 billion to the global economy.

Even though these are global numbers, the United States will be greatly affected. More than 18% of adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder, which represents about one-third of the $148 billion Americans pay each year for mental health care.

The good news is that for every dollar spent on treating depression and anxiety disorders, there is roughly a $4 return in the form of improved health and work ability. This means that employers should encourage employees suffering from mental health problems to get help. Unfortunately, it is not easy for employees to seek the help they need, in part because of their fear of discrimination.

The Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis of a disability, as long as the employee is qualified to do his or her job. Under the ADA, an individual is considered to be disabled if he or she meets any one of the following three criteria:

  1. the employee suffers from a mental or physical impairment that substantially impairs a major life activity,
  2. the employee has a history of a disability, or
  3. the employer believes the employee has a disability.

An employee is qualified if he or she can perform the essential functions of his or her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is any adjustment an employer makes to a disabled employee’s workplace so that the employee is able to perform his or her job duties. Under the ADA, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation as long as it does not impose an undue hardship on them.

What does all of this mean? It means that an employer cannot discriminate based on the employee’s mental health problems, as long as the disabled employee is qualified to perform his or her job.

Depending on the mental illness, an employer will often be able to reasonably accommodate an employee without undue hardship. For example, the ADA allows for leave from work to qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

For a historical background of the ADA, see our earlier blog post titled “Happy Birthday, ADA!” For more information about taking leave under the ADA, read two of our prior blog posts, “Leave As an Accommodation Under the ADA” and “EEOC Issues Guidance Regarding Medical Leave As an Accommodation to a Disability.”

Summing It Up

  • Mental health problems are a major health issue in the United States and in the rest of the world.
  • Over half of those surveyed admit that stress and anxiety affect their work relationships and job performance.
  • The WHO estimates that just the two mental health concerns of depression and anxiety will cost the global economy $925 billion each year over the next 14 years.
  • The ADA protects employees suffering from mental illness from discrimination, as long as the mental illness amounts to a disability as defined by the ADA and the employee is otherwise qualified to perform his or her job.
  • An employer is required to reasonably accommodate disabled employees as long as the accommodation does not create an undue hardship for the employer.