The ADA and Mental Disabilities

We are in the process of preparing our “Sensitive Employee Relations” presentation for the upcoming Frisco HR Summit at the end of March, so we thought we would provide you a preview of that speech while also providing some valuable information regarding mental disabilities and mental health and their relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Not only is mental health a very sensitive issue in the workplace but it can often be difficult to handle from a Human Resources perspective.

Just as with other disabilities under the ADA, a mental disability is (a) any impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (b) a record of such impairment, or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.  Examples include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, and others.  These conditions most often manifest themselves in the workplace when it comes to interacting with others (i.e. coworkers, customers, vendors) or the ability to concentrate and/or perform one’s work.  Other than with respect to the “regarded as” category, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation for any mental disability and at a minimum, engage in the good faith interactive process to determine whether or not a reasonable accommodation exists.

It is in the context of reasonable accommodations that sensitivity and difficulty most often arise.  Many individuals with a mental disability may not feel comfortable identifying that mental disability to their employer and/or requesting an accommodation to address a mental disability.  An employer’s duty is to reasonably accommodate a known disability, thus the employee has a duty to notify the employer of the mental disability and seek an accommodation.  That said, no magic words are necessary and if an employee says enough to put an employer on notice or trigger the employer to inquire further, the employer’s obligation arises to inquire further and engage in the reasonable accommodation discussion.  This potentially could be as simple as the employee requesting time off because he or she is stressed out and struggling.  Although an employer is limited in what it can ask about, it can and should ask whether the employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job and whether or not he or she needs an accommodation.

Mental disabilities can pose a minefield to employers and should be handled delicately and with care.  There are many things to consider and of which to be aware and employers should educate themselves.

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