Let’s do a little role-playing. You’re the HR Director and Jane is an employee at your company:
Jane: I’ve been feeling anxious and depressed since my return to work from medical leave.
HR Director: I’m sorry to hear that, Jane. I hope you feel better soon. Is there anything I can do to make your transition back to work easier?
Jane: Actually, there is. My anxiety and depression seem to be aggravated by rush hour traffic.
HR Director: I know what you mean. I feel like pulling my hair out during my commute every day.
Jane: I’m really having trouble dealing with it. I think that if I start working a 10-4 schedule, that would really help me cope, because I would miss the morning and afternoon rush hour commute. Would that be ok?
HR Director: Let me think about that, Jane, and get back to you this afternoon. (code for “Let me speak to my employment law attorney”)
Jane: Ok, and here’s a note from my doctor, who has advised me that avoiding rush hour traffic will help alleviate my anxiety and depression.
Far-fetched? No. Reality.
An employee in New Jersey recently filed a lawsuit alleging that her employer refused to accommodate her “anxiety and depression” that was aggravated by “crowded roadways experienced during the heavy traffic of rush hour.” The employee, a marketing consultant, requested a modified work schedule under which she would come in after morning rush hour and leave prior to evening rush hour. The employee alleges that she requested the accommodation “at the mandate” of her doctor.
So, as the HR Director, would you grant the requested accommodation?
In her lawsuit, the employee alleges that her employer changed her schedule for a short period of time, but then refused, downgraded her tasks to “clerical” work, and ultimately terminated her employment.
Putting yourself in the shoes of the HR Director, your visceral reaction may have been to deny the requested accommodation as unreasonable. But, take a step back. A disability can be physical or emotional. It’s quite possible that the employee’s anxiety and depression substantially limits a major life activity. And, a modified work schedule can constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. So, while we don’t know all of the facts in this case (including whether the requested work schedule would have conflicted with the employee’s essential job duties or would otherwise have been unreasonable), we should not be so quick to dismiss the request as a “non-starter.”