Is Anxiety Considered a Disability at Work?

Stressed worker with her head in her hands at her office desk experiencing anxiety


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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 they have a mental health condition. While it’s not the job of human resources (HR) to diagnose an employee, 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—that can help the employee more with mental health than the HR manager.

However, as a business owner or an HR professional, it is important to understand how to deal with an employee with a disability.

Understanding Anxiety

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affects 18.1% of adults in the United States and is the most common mental illness issue. They go on to state than less the 37% of those suffering from anxiety will seek or receive treatment. Genetics, life events, changes in brain chemistry, and other stressors may cause the development of an anxiety disorder.

The National Institute of Mental Health breaks the disorder down into generalized anxiety order (GAD), panic disorder, and phobia-related disorders depending on the severity, duration, and frequency of symptoms. The ADAA further breaks the disorder down into obsessive-compulsive disorders, depressive disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of the disease are wide-ranging and depend on the individual and the severity. They include restlessness, fatigue, concentration issues, irritability, sleeplessness, pounding or rushing heartbeat, shaking, and shortness of breath. Those in the grip of an event can feel extreme worry, out of control, and the sense of impending doom.

Claiming a Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—that applies to businesses with 15 or more employees—doesn’t list specific conditions which qualify people for protection. However, it does give 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. However, a person who feels an overwhelming panic could qualify. In other words, there isn’t a box that you can check off.

Evaluating Anxiety as a Disability

If an employee comes to you and says they have a disability and asks for an accommodation, one of your first responses should be to ask them to fill out a medical information form. This form will require that they visit their physician and have them complete the necessary information.

In addition to Federal laws, many states have laws that regulate the medical information that an employee is required to give their employer. Make sure that your paperwork is compliant with all laws, and double-check with your attorney.

If the doctor has determined that the employee has a disability, they may list areas where the worker could benefit from accommodations. These suggestions may be aimed at the employee to consider.

Reasonable Accommodations

Once you have verified that the employee has a problem, you can begin the interactive process. Interactive means there can be back and forth between you and the employee on what reasonable accommodations can be made. According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process. These modifications enable an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job, but successfully perform their job tasks to the same extent as people without disabilities.

For example, if you hire an employee as a receptionist and they then request that, due to anxiety, they 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. But, if an accountant makes the same request, it could well be reasonable accommodation as their workplace is not dependent on proximity to the entryway.

Another request for anxiety accommodations could be flexible start times so the employee does not have the rush hour traffic fear. Other accommodations may include working from home or changing the hours the employee is at work. 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 the marketing department, flexible start times could be a reasonable accommodation.

Helping Employees

First, of all, it’s essential that HR makes it clear that they follow all state and federal laws. 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. Remind employees that they can use your 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 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.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current legal advice, please consult with an attorney.