A staff member asks to bring an emotional support animal to work because it helps alleviate their stress. Do you have to consider this? It depends.
When most of us think about the Americans with Disabilities Act, we think of physical disabilities and accessibility. We have complied with the requirements of the act relating to physical disabilities with modified entrances and exits to our offices to allow easier access for people who use wheelchairs. We have updated our job descriptions to include mobility and sensory functions essential to a job. However, many of us don’t realize that the ADA amendment that took effect in 2009 includes mental health.
The challenge this presents for employers is that psychological issues can be difficult to identify. Examples of diagnoses include depression, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress, binge eating, antisocial personality disorder, and general personality disorder. Because of mental health stigma, some employers may be skeptical of a diagnosis. To make matters more complex, the request for mental health accommodation may have been brought forward by an underperforming employee.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it is estimated that more than 18 percent of American adults suffer from mental health issues. And mental health issues are estimated to be increasing.
The ADA requires reasonable accommodation for mental health disorders accompanied by what is called an “interactive process,” which includes several steps such as considering an employee’s requests, investigating options, and evaluating the effect on the workplace. For example, consider a diagnosis of anxiety. An employee might request coming in late or leaving early or working from home to avoid the stress of the commute or working fewer hours to reduce stress. Other options might include restructuring the job so that the employee handles only one task at a time; for example, a receptionist who is responsible for a large volume of incoming calls, making copies, ordering supplies, and handling mail might propose the following daily morning routine with a similar structure for the afternoon:
- open mail from 9 - 9:30 a.m. only
- answer calls from 9:30 - 10:30 a.m. only
- make copies from 10:30 - 11 a.m. only
- order supplies from 11:30 - noon only
The question is whether this is reasonable in light of the essential functions of the job and whether the job description says anything about multitasking.
What about an employee suffering from depression? Accommodation requests might include a flexible schedule, job restructuring, supervisory methods (meeting with the employee more or less frequently, encouraging the employee to let the supervisor know when something is unclear, providing oral and written instructions), additional time to complete work, job coaches, periodic rest breaks, a support animal (such as a dog or cat that provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of the disability) or support person (a dedicated person to help keep them focused, assist with minor daily tasks and help them operate in social environments in which they may not feel comfortable, such as meetings).
When it comes to accommodating an employee’s mental health condition, the possibilities are endless—and so, too, are the possibilities for abuse. Even if these accommodations sound reasonable, consider that you are prohibited from discussing any of this with your other employees because of privacy expectations. Your remaining staff may not understand why this one employee has an emotional support animal or comes in late and leaves early and why they can’t do the same.