Question: One of my employees is typically very punctual but has recently been reporting to work late. When I asked this employee what was going on, she told me that she has been struggling with depression that makes it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning. What should I do?
Answer: The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require employers to make reasonable accommodations for the known mental and physical disabilities of qualified employees, unless doing so would constitute an undue hardship. When depression begins to limit the performance of major life activities like work and sleep, it is considered a mental disability under the FEHA and ADA.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, in the United States, major depression is one of the most common mental disorders and the leading cause of disability for individuals ages 15 to 44.3. Because major depression affects more than 16.1 million American adults, many employers will face an employee suffering from depression.
One of the most difficult areas of legal compliance is the accommodation of mental disabilities like depression. It can be difficult for employers to recognize when an employee has a mental disability and is requesting an accommodation. When an employee with a visual impairment asks for magnification devices or braille labels, it is usually apparent that the employee has a disability and is requesting an accommodation. However, when an employee asks for a flexible schedule or a workspace with fewer distractions, it is often unclear whether the employee is asking for an accommodation or simply wanting to discuss a change to his or her work environment for reasons unrelated to a disability.
Because of these uncertainties, if you have information leading you to think that an employee with a mental disability may be asking for an accommodation, it is best to err on the side of caution and get more details. For example, if an employee requests a change to his or her work environment, ask why. If the employee tells you that he or she is making the request due to a disability, work with the employee to determine the limitations caused by the disability so that you can decide on the best accommodations that do not cause an undue hardship for the business. Discuss whether the requested change would enable him or her to perform the essential functions of the job or whether an alternative accommodation would be better or more reasonable. This is called the “interactive process.” Employers can require employees to provide a written medical certification containing limited information concerning the existence of a disability, work restrictions, and suggested accommodations. While every case is unique, individuals struggling with depression may have trouble with attendance, punctuality, concentrating and/or controlling their emotions. Accommodations may include a modified or reduced work schedule, additional training time, dividing large assignments into smaller tasks, memory aids, and/or additional break time to employ stress management techniques.
Accommodating mental disabilities in the workplace can be challenging. It is important to adequately train supervisors on how to spot requests for accommodations, the basics of the interactive process, and an employer’s duty to provide reasonable accommodation. When specific accommodation request issues arise, it is wise to consult an experienced employment attorney for guidance.