Most employers know they are obligated under the ADA to accommodate mental as well as physical disabilities. In theory that seems easy enough, but in practice mental health conditions are much more difficult to deal with than physical disabilities. For example, a common problem is that the employer often lacks specific information about the nature of the employee’s condition. Sometimes that is because the employee himself does not disclose the condition (or perhaps does not even recognize it himself), but co-workers or a supervisor observe behavior changes or a performance decline. While the employer may ask the employee general questions about how the employee is feeling, the law allows a more specific inquiry about a medical condition only under limited circumstances. A disability related inquiry or medical exam is permitted only if the employer has a reasonable belief, based upon objective evidence, that the employee’s ability to perform the essential job functions is impaired by a medical condition, or the medical condition poses a threat to the employee or others. Unfortunately, it is not always easy for an employer to judge whether there is sufficient reliable information to justify a disability inquiry.
Even in those cases where the employee discloses a mental health condition and requests accommodation, the employer often lacks sufficient information about the nature of the condition or proposed accommodations. This is particularly true in cases of stress or anxiety. Medical providers have been known to impose vague restrictions for stressed or anxious employees, including some of the following: the employee should “avoid working in an environment she finds stressful; “keep stress levels as low as possible;” the supervisor should stop having “hostile confrontations” and instead provide the employee with “calm, non-confrontational treatment.” By its nature work is often stressful, and employees sometimes have to deal with unpleasant tasks or people. To demand a stress free work environments in neither helpful for reasonable.
What is an employer to do when presented with these types of vague restrictions? Although I am not often a big fan of EEOC’s work, last month the agency published a resource document that is likely to be helpful. Entitled “The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work”, the document is targeted at the mental health professional and not the employer. Presented in a question and answer format, the document provides useful information about the ADA and how the provider can help her patient obtain an accommodation from the employer. Most useful in question 9, which describes the type of documentation that would be helpful for the employer to assess nature of the employee’s condition, the functional limitations, and proposed accommodations that are specific to the functional limitations. Employers should consider giving this resource document to the employee and asking the employee to present it to the medical provider. An employer could also develop its own questionnaire for the provider based upon question No. 9 in the document.
A medical provider who responds to the information listed in question No. 9 would not only help her patient, but also assist the patient’s employer in evaluating appropriate reasonable accommodations for a mental disability.
Image Credit: from Google, Creative Commons license, Man Suffering Stress and Anxiety.