Having a mental health issue interfere with your personal life is hard enough. But having it affect your Massachusetts working life can be even more difficult. For one thing, there’s dealing with your mental health challenge surrounded by people who may not know about it or be sympathetic to what you’re going through. Then there’s the potential of being treated differently after your colleagues learn about your mental health struggles. Finally, there’s the possibility that you could lose your job.
Yes, getting fired because of a mental health issue could be illegal. But that doesn’t mean the threat of a lawsuit will always stop your boss from terminating you or make it any easier to find a new job after you lose your current one.
Workplace discrimination based on a psychological disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is nothing new. But there’s been a steady increase in the number of discrimination complaints based on anxiety disorders that have been filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
What Is an Anxiety Disorder?
Feeling some anxiety is a part of everyday life for most people. But these anxious feelings are often temporary and the result of an unusual or significant life event. However, there could be a problem when these feelings of anxiousness are severe, don’t go away or are disproportionate to their cause. An anxiety order may exist when the anxiety begins to negatively affect someone’s daily life. Some of the most common types of anxiety disorders are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
Common forms of treatment include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. But these can be supplemented with other strategies, like support groups and stress management.
The Number of Workplace Discrimination Complaints Continue to Rise
During the 2011 fiscal year, the EEOC received 1,362 ADA-based complaints (charges) where at least one of the impairments included an anxiety disorder. In 2021, the number of complaints including an anxiety disorder rose to 2,639.
There are a variety of reasons that could explain why these numbers have gone up. The coronavirus is a major factor, but this upward trend began before the pandemic hit. There are other potential theories to explain the increase in the reporting of anxiety-based discrimination. Some of these include:
- The possible increase in the number of people dealing with an anxiety disorder.
- People are becoming more willing to seek treatment for their anxiety.
- Greater acceptance of the importance of being mentally healthy, especially among young adults.
- Reduced stigma for mental illness in at least some areas of the country, so some employees are less afraid to talk about it with their coworkers.
With more employees complaining about anxiety-based discrimination at work, there’s more employers can do to make their work environments more accommodating to their employees dealing with anxiety.
How Employers Can Handle Employees with Disabilities
There are two approaches employers can take when it comes to accommodating employees dealing with anxiety.
First, an employer can create a work environment that goes above and beyond what’s required by the law. This could include treating an employee with a disability no different than their coworkers, even though the employee’s disability isn’t legally recognized. Or it might constitute providing workplace accommodations that go further than what’s legally mandated.
Second, there’s doing the minimum. In other words, the employer does just enough to avoid legal liability. When it comes to what the law requires, one major legal authority is the ADA. For certain individuals, their anxiety disorder could qualify for special protections and rights under the ADA.
For a disability to be recognized by the ADA, it must result in a mental or physical impairment that substantially impairs a major life activity. Deciding whether the ADA recognizes a disability does not solely depend on the existence of a diagnosis. Instead, it primarily depends on how that disability affects a particular person.
Another key point for employers to remember is that the ADA prohibits discrimination because of an employee’s history of having a disability. So disability discrimination can exist even if the employee no longer has a disability. An employer is also in violation of the ADA if the discrimination is based only on the belief that the employee has a disability.
In addition to prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees because of their disability, the ADA also requires covered employers to provide one or more reasonable accommodations to their employees who have a recognized disability. But this obligation only exists if it doesn’t place an undue hardship on the employer and the employee can otherwise perform their essential job duties.
Ways Employers Can Help Employees with Anxiety Disorders
In addition to providing a reasonable accommodation to help an employee deal with their anxiety, employers can make other changes to the workplace, like:
- Offering mental wellness services.
- Reminding employees of the mental health resources available from the employer.
- Creating policies that encourage employees to talk about their mental health struggles. Examples include open door and confidentiality policies.
- Checking in with workers often to see how things are going.
- Educating employees about the prevalence of emotional and psychological challenges and ways they can get help if they’re dealing with one.
- Fostering a company culture that recognizes the needs of employees who are dealing with not just anxiety disorders, but any disability.
- Offering flexible work leave options that make it easier for employees to get the help they need.
- Encouraging managers to serve as examples of model behavior. If a manager isn’t afraid to share the fact that they’re seeing a therapist to deal with a mental health issue, it might make it easier for their subordinates to open up about what they’re going through and get help for it.
Should you be experiencing discrimination at your Massachusetts workplace based on an anxiety disorder, contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE case evaluation.