On December 12, 2016, the EEOC issued a new Q&A style document entitled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.”
While clearly aimed at employees with mental health conditions, the document is worthwhile reading for employers as well, as it contains a solid overview of the extent and limitations of the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirements. Some of the key points include:
- Employers can’t ask employees about their mental health based upon mere suspicion or fear that an employee’s mental condition may affect their work. Rather, there must be “objective evidence” to support the employer’s concerns.
- Certain mental health conditions, including major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder “easily” qualify as disabilities under the ADA, even if the employee’s symptoms come and go, and even if the symptoms are mitigated by treatment.
- The ADA does not require employers to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.
- Employees are responsible for asking for accommodations, but they are not solely responsible for identifying a specific accommodation.
- Employers can ask employees to put their accommodation requests in writing, to describe their condition and how it affects their work, and to submit supporting documentation from a health care provider. Employers may also ask an employee’s health care provider whether a specific proposed accommodation would meet the employee’s needs.
- If no reasonable accommodation is available that would allow an employee to perform their essential job functions, the employee may still be entitled to unpaid leave or to reassignment to another job for which they are qualified.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with one or more major life activities (the definition of “disability” under the ADA). Given the statistics, it is highly likely that just about every employer will at some point or another have an employee who is experiencing some form of mental illness.
Employers and HR professionals are well-advised to make sure that they understand not only their legal obligations, but also the basic facts about common mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders. Doing so can not only help avoid liability under the ADA, but also help improve employee retention and productivity.