Question:

I am the supervisor of a department with about a dozen employees in it.
We all work closely together in an office setting, performing the same
type of work. It was recently brought to our attention that one of my employees
suffers from a mental disability, which requires her to take medication
that makes her groggy. As a result, she must now come to work later than
everyone else, and her performance at work is suffering. Nobody else knows
about this individual’s condition, but the rest of my employees have
noticed her tardiness and poor job performance and are getting resentful
of her. Morale is really beginning to suffer. Is there anything I can do
about this situation?

Answer:

The situation you have described is a difficult one. Most people are aware that an employer must accommodate an employee’s physical disability, such as a workplace injury or physical handicap. However, employers are just as responsible for accommodating employees who suffer from debilitating mental disabilities such as chronic depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. While these and other mental conditions are just as serious as a physical disability, they are not always obvious to others and can therefore create problems in the workplace when an accommodation becomes necessary.

An employer is required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability to the best of its ability, as long as doing so does not create an undue burden for the employer. An undue burden is typically considered to be a financial hardship, or something that would significantly disrupt the day-to-day operations of the employer’s business. Barring such a hardship, however, an employer is legally required to accommodate an employee who has demonstrated a legitimate disability, be it mental or physical.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) defines an individual with a “mental disability” as someone having any mental or psychological disorder or condition, such as mental retardation, emotional or mental illness, or specific learning disabilities, that limit a major life activity. A mental or psychological disorder or condition limits a major life activity if it makes the achievement of that activity difficult. The severity of an individual’s limitations are evaluated as compared with an average person in the general population, and the term “major life activities” is broadly construed to include physical, mental, and social activities, as well as working. The accommodations necessary for these types of conditions obviously differ from those for physical disabilities, which tend to require changes to the employee’s physical work environment and/or equipment. Mental disabilities more frequently require less tangible accommodations, such as a change in the employee’s schedule, modification of the employee’s job duties or expectations, or the adjusting of workplace policies as they apply to the disabled individual. It’s easy to see how making these kinds of accommodations could seem unfair to the disabled individual’s coworkers. The situation you describe, in which it appears that one individual is being treated favorably or not being held to the same standards as his/her coworkers, is particularly problematic when those coworkers are unaware of the reason for this differential treatment.

Compounding this situation is the fact that employers must keep information concerning an employee’s medical condition, including information about psychiatric disabilities, confidential under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). As such, employers may not disclose that an employee is disabled, or that he/she is being accommodated in any way.

You and your employer are doing the right thing by complying with the reasonable accommodation requirements related to a mental disability, even though doing so has created tension within your office. While you may not disclose the reason for the treatment that the disabled individual is receiving, you can explain to any employees who voice concerns that your employer is acting for legitimate business reasons, and/or that it is company policy to ensure its employees’ privacy.
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