Approximately 20% of the U.S. population have some form of mental illness. Mental illness can range from mild to severe. When you have mental health issues, day-to-day activities can be harder to complete some days. Your life becomes an ebb and flow of days when it’s hard to function and others where you’re energized and ready to get things done.
What are some of the most prevalent mental health issues? Phobias affect almost 9% of the population. Social anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder each affect almost 7% of the population. Those are followed by PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder at more than 3% each.
Every person is different and handles the symptoms and limitations of mental illness in their own way. For some, getting out of bed and going to the office is a struggle. For others, surprise interruptions by co-workers are alarming.
A woman who was assaulted by a male may find it hard to work with a man without having others present in the same room. A man who suffers from depression may have days when it’s hard to leave the house. That doesn’t mean they can’t do their job, they just need a helping hand to get work done in a way that doesn’t increase their mental distress.
If your mental illness makes it harder to work, what are your rights? Do you have to quit your job? Can your employer fire you for needing more breaks when your mental health impacts your daily routine?
Your Rights Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA provides you certain rights in terms of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Mental health disorders qualify as a disability in some situations.
Mental health does allow you the right for reasonable accommodations in order to do your job. As long as you inform your employer regarding your needs, your employer has to tread carefully on how you’re treated. Only in rare occasions can your employer fire you for needing reasonable accommodations due to your mental health.
If you are having a hard time managing your job and your mental illness, it is your responsibility to alert your employer. They have the choice to transfer you to another department or accommodate you in an appropriate manner. If you’re prone to panic attacks, that might mean allowing extra breaks for you to step outside, get fresh air, and work through the anxiety attack. If you have PTSD, it can mean avoiding certain situations that trigger bad memories.
One term to consider when it comes to employment laws regarding mental illness is that you need to meet the requirement for “substantially limiting.” This doesn’t mean the mental illness is severe. It can be mild and still qualify. If the symptoms come and go, you’d still meet the requirement. What’s important is that the mental health condition has to make it difficult for you to complete tasks without some level of accommodation.
What Are Reasonable Accommodations?
While your employer needs to provide reasonable accommodations, the term “reasonable” is key. If your needs put someone else in danger, it’s not reasonable. If you cannot do your job and there is no way to transfer you to another position or department, it’s not reasonable. In those cases, your employer may have no choice but to let you go.
Some of the ways your employer could accommodate you include moving your lunch break to an earlier or later hour to give you time for your therapy sessions. You might be given a private office with a door that closes so that people can’t just barge in without warning. It may be advantageous to let you work from home in a setting that is familiar and calming to you.
If you apply for a promotion, your employer cannot use your mental health illness as an excuse to deny you the promotion. The employer cannot demote you to another position due to your health either. If you are moved to a job with fewer responsibilities, it’s up to you to accept it. Your employer shouldn’t demand a pay decrease.
When making any of these decisions, your employer has to look at your case and not the stereotypical case of someone with your mental health issue. Stereotypes and common myths are not reasons to deny a reasonable accommodation.
Getting back to the original question, if you have panic disorder and need extra breaks on days that a panic attack hits, firing you would be an illegal action. The only way your employer is justified is if your break puts others at risk, there’s no possible way to accommodate you, or your work performance is greatly affected. Your employer could move your break to let you go to a quiet room and use methods that help you ride out the anxiety attack. If your boss refuses and fires you, you have a valid complaint.
How Do You Get a Reasonable Accommodation?
Go to your supervisor and HR department and ask for reasonable accommodations. You don’t have to share your health issues with the entire office, but your supervisor or HR specialist needs to know what’s going on. From there, they can work with you to come up with a reasonable accommodation. If you’re asked for a note from your doctor, do so. You may need to provide a written statement of your illness and how it affects you. Make sure you submit that, too.
Keep copies of the documents you submit to your employer. Keep copies of any responses you get back from them.
If you ask and feel you’ve been discriminated against, it’s important to know that this is not uncommon. Mental health is a misunderstood condition as the signs of mental illness are not always clear and easy to identify. As a result, mental illness can be misunderstood. Be prepared to ask for explanations as to why your request was denied. Your employer cannot tell others about your health. If they do, keep whatever proof you have as you may need it later.
What if Your Mental Health Issue is Used Against You?
You’ve been fired and you know it’s due to your mental health. You asked for accommodations and were denied. Your co-workers have said they heard you were fired because you’re depressed and the supervisor didn’t want to deal with your mood swings.
What should you do? First, keep records of anything that was said about you or given to you as a reason for your termination or dismissal. If your supervisor told others about your health when they asked where you went, that’s illegal and also important to address during your illegal termination complaint. Second, talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law.
Go to that consultation armed with as much proof as you can. Have all of the emails and letters you’ve received from your medical professionals, your HR department, your supervisor, and even co-workers who have information that can help your case.
With a free legal consultation, you’ll have a better understanding of your rights. If the attorney takes on your case, you’ll have someone to guide you through the next steps. If the attorney cannot take your case, you’ll still be armed with things you can do next. Call Shegerian Conniff to schedule a free consultation today.