Is Anxiety Considered a Disability at Work?

How Employers Can Accommodate Employees With an Anxiety Disability

Woman who is experiencing extreme anxiety at work
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Anxiety affects 18.1 percent of adults in the United States. This means that it is almost impossible for a business of any size not to have an employee who suffers from anxiety. Of course, anxiety manifests in many different ways—everything from excessive tiredness, inattention to details, and even controlling behaviors—can actually signal that anxiety is rearing its ugly head.

An employee with this condition may not realize that she has a mental health condition. While it’s not the job of HR to diagnose an employee (and, in fact, HR should never do so), an employee who comes to you with problems with anxiety may need a nudge in the right direction, such as a call to the Employee Assistance Program, which can help more with mental health than the HR manager does.

If an employee has difficulties with anxiety, in whatever form, they may be eligible for legal protection. Here’s what you need to know about how to deal with employees who experience anxiety in the workplace.

Can Employees Claim Anxiety as a Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, doesn’t list specific conditions which qualify people for protection, but it does give us a definition of disability as follows:

“An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.”

In the case of anxiety, an employee who feels a bit anxious about meeting new people, but can take a deep breath and get through the process, wouldn’t qualify for ADA protection. But a person who feels an overwhelming panic could qualify. In other words, there isn’t a box that you can check off that says “anxiety is a considered a disability under ADA.”

How Do You Evaluate Whether Anxiety Qualifies as a Disability?

If an employee comes to you and says she has a disability and asks for an accommodation, you can ask her to see her doctor and fill out a medical form. Please note that in addition to Federal laws regarding ADA, many states have laws that limit what information the employee has to give you. Make sure that your paperwork is compliant with all laws, and double check with your attorney.

The essential evaluation is that, yes, the employee has a disability, and this is the area in which she needs an accommodation. Note, it is not the doctor who determines the accommodation, although they can make suggestions for the employer to consider.

When you’ve verified that the employee has a disability you can begin the interactive process. Interactive means there can be back and forth: you do not have to simply accept the employee’s request. The request needs to be reasonable.

For example, if you hire an employee as a receptionist and then she requests that, due to her anxiety, she can’t sit near the door, that request is unreasonable. As a key job duty for the receptionist is to greet people when they walk in the doors, the accommodation requested is unreasonable. But, if an accountant makes the same request, it could well be a reasonable accommodation.

Some of the requests for anxiety accommodations can be flexible start times, working from home, changing some tasks, or even reporting to a different supervisor. Remember there are no right or wrong answers for every business. If the job is to open the store in the morning, flexible start times are not reasonable. But if the position is to work as one of 10 people in a marketing department, flexible start times could be a reasonable accommodation.

How Can HR Help Employees With Anxiety Disability Issues?

First, of all, it’s essential that HR makes it clear that they follow all laws, including ADA. If an employee comes to request an accommodation, the goal should be to find a solution that accommodates the employee's anxiety disability, not to figure out a way to deny the employee's request.

Remember, you want a workforce that is productive and happy in their jobs, and if a disability that you can reasonably accommodate exists, you should jump at the chance. You don't want your efforts at anxiety disability accommodation to become quibbling over whether the employee’s anxiety is severe enough to qualify.

Also, remind employees that they can use the Employee Assistance Program to help them with any stressful times.

Proper management training can also go a long way toward helping all employees, not just those with anxiety disability. If managers have excellent communication skills and know how critical providing an accommodation is, the stress level in the office will drop, which will help everyone.

Always strive to make your office a great place to work, and that means making accommodations for employees who suffer from anxiety disability.