Approximately forty million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety. Federal law protects against discrimination based on disability, including mental disorders such as anxiety. But some employers react to an employee’s anxiety through termination or demotion, and lawsuits over disability discrimination involving mental impairments have significantly increased over the years. However, more appropriate avenues exist to deal with an employee’s anxiety that comply with the law and promote the employee’s wellbeing, such as reasonably accommodating the employee.
The Americans with Disability Act
Congress adopted the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) in 1990 to eliminate discrimination against disabled employees and applicants. The definition of “disability” includes both physical and mental impairments. One in four adult Americans lives with a mental impairment, so it is unsurprising that mental impairments constitute the second most common claim brought under the ADA. Therefore, when a mental impairment, such as anxiety, leads to an adverse employment action, the employer may be under scrutiny for violating the ADA.
Employers should use caution when terminating an employee or rescinding a job offer. For instance, a steel and iron production corporation rescinded a job offer after learning that a prospective employee took anxiety medication. Even though a doctor informed the corporation that the prospective employee should be able to perform the essential functions of the job, the corporation dismissed the doctor’s findings and rescinded the job offer without performing a physical examination on the prospective employee and without determining whether he could, in fact, perform the essential functions of the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit on the employee’s behalf, seeking injunctive relief, lost wages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.
Not all mental disorders constitute disabilities under the ADA. For example, in 2008, a federal court in Idaho refused to extend ADA coverage to a zookeeper with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because he was not substantially limited in his ability to work. The ADA protects against discrimination based on mental disorders that substantially limits an employee’s major life activity, such as working, or if an employee has a record of a disability or is regarded as being disabled.
While anxiety may impede an employee’s ability to work, employers should first attempt to reasonably accommodate employees who suffer from anxiety before engaging in an adverse employment action, such as termination, demotion, or rescinding a job offer. Reasonable accommodations specifically pertaining to anxiety may include more frequent breaks, part-time shifts, extra time off during lunch, or letting the employee work in a quiet area. But a reasonable accommodation that poses an undue hardship on a business is not required by the employer.
INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.