Mental Health Crisis: Your Rights in the Workplace

Between the lingering hold of the COVID-19 pandemic, social and political stressors, and financial uncertainty, it's unsurprising that an overwhelming 90 percent of U.S. adults believe the country is experiencing a mental health crisis.

Over 50 percent of individuals in the US will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder, including anxiety, mood, substance abuse, and impulse control disorders, at some point in their lifetime. In 2020, about 21 percent of US adults experienced a mental illness. The COVID-19 pandemic drove a significant rise in mental health conditions, with about 4 out of 10 U.S. adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders during the pandemic.

Inevitably, a substantial number of U.S. adults are currently dealing with mental health conditions in the workplace.

Job-protected Leave and Reasonable Accommodations

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and state law counterparts, protect job applicants and employees from mental health discrimination. Additionally, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job-protected leave for an eligible employee to address their own or a family member’s mental health conditions.

In the workplace, mental health discrimination can arise in various forms. For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently brought lawsuits against employers in cases where an employee was terminated after being diagnosed with severe depression and requesting leave, and where a company refused to hire a job applicant because the applicant used prescription medication to treat anxiety and opioid addiction disorders.

Under the ADA and state counterparts, you have the right to seek reasonable accommodations to help you successfully perform the essential functions of your job. Reasonable accommodations for mental health conditions may include the option to telework, a flexible schedule, additional breaks, written directions, regular feedback, and a quieter workspace. If you choose to disclose your mental disability to seek a reasonable accommodation, your employer may ask for reasonable medical documentation, such as a doctor’s note, but cannot ask for your entire medical record or mental health file.

Overcoming Stigma in the Workplace

With growing awareness of mental health in the US, more people are openly discussing mental health in the workplace. However, stigma towards mental health disorders persists, and employees may fear that discussing mental health in the workplace could lead to discrimination, regardless of whether the employee is actually experiencing a mental health illness.

In addition to a preexisting condition, the ADA and state laws also protect employees and applicants from discrimination for a perceived disability or a history or record of a prior condition. For example, in the recently decided case of Equal Emp. Opportunity Comm'n v. W. Meade Place, LLP, an employee requested to go on leave after a situation with a coworker triggered a flare-up of a documented history of an anxiety disorder. After the employer informed her that she did not qualify for FMLA and would need to take unpaid leave, the employee asked to return to work immediately. Instead, she was terminated because the employer claimed that she was unable to perform her job duties — despite having successfully performed her job prior to requesting leave. A jury found for the EEOC, which brought the case, and determined that the former employee was terminated because the employer regarded her as having a mental health disability.

If you have experienced mental health discrimination at work, you should consult with an attorney to determine your legal options. Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP has experienced disability discrimination lawyers in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Tennessee, and Baltimore. For more information, contact us today.

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