Tips for seeking ADA accommodations
Mark Siegert, PhD
If you are struggling with a mental health issue, you may be inclined to hide your condition from your co-workers or employer; and you might worry that sharing behavioral health information could alienate you from your peers and that it might damage your career.
While these considerations are serious, there is a comforting piece of reality you should know: many of your co-workers are also struggling. Recent research suggests that at any given time, 20 to 25 percent of the workforce has a diagnosable mental health condition and 18 percent has an active substance abuse problem. That means that right now, one out of every four or five employees has a mental health issue. Picture your co-workers in a room. Yes, on average, at least one out of every five has, or if diagnosed would have, a mental health diagnosis.
Despite this wide prevalence, few employees are comfortable seeking workplace accommodations to help them manage their mental health needs—even though the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) legally requires most employers to provide reasonable accommodations for people with psychiatric disabilities. Just as workplace accommodations can help an employee with a physical disability perform their job, accommodations can help an employee with a behavioral health challenge achieve workplace success.
Some employees fear that seeking accommodations will harm their potential for promotion and success, but the opposite can also be true. It is typically less costly for employers to help an existing employee achieve success with accommodations than bear the costs of poor performance and health-related absenteeism. Also, employers have an incentive to help an existing employee succeed: the hassle and cost of hiring a new employee is significant.
If you—or a loved one—is struggling at work due to a mental health issue, there are ways an employer can help. In fact, most employers are required by law to do so. Here are some tips to help employees obtain behavioral health accommodations.
1. Understand the ADA
Under the ADA, private employers with more than 15 employees and all state and local government employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. The ADA states that that anyone seeking accommodations must demonstrate that their disability substantially interferes with a “significant life activity,” which can seem hard to define. But the law has been very broadly defined in this area such that many, if not most, psychiatric diagnoses and symptoms qualify. (Note, however, that active illegal drug abuse is specifically excluded from the ADA and is not a covered mental illness under the ADA.) If it is significant enough to require help or accommodation to succeed at the job, it is likely to be included.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “reasonable accommodations” are adjustments to a work setting that make it possible for a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job. For example, depression can cause problems with functioning early in the morning, regulating emotions, and interacting with others. Problems concentrating and communicating can also be symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders, and there are many more.
Examples of a reasonable accommodation to a mental health condition might include
- Telecommuting and/or working from home part of the time
- Part-time hours, job sharing, or adjustment to start and end times
- Breaks according to individual needs, rather than requiring adherence to a fixed schedule
- Increased natural light
- Reduction or removal of distractions in workspace
- Reduction of workplace noise
- Flexible schedule to accommodate travel to and participation in mental health treatment or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
2. Talk to your mental healthcare provider
If a mental health or alcohol abuse issue is making it difficult for you to perform or succeed at your job, you should first talk to your behavioral health provider. Your provider can help think through what is most challenging for you in the work environment and what accommodations would be most helpful. Your provider can help you strategize the most effective way to approach your employer and help you develop an overall game plan.
Your provider also may be called on to provide documentation of your disability. While there are no official ADA request forms—and under the ADA, employers must limit the scope of any medical inquiry—most employers will require a written request, usually from an appropriate health provider. The provider may be asked to document a condition (statement of disability) and its associated functional limitations, and to explain how a requested accommodation would help. Please note that the accommodation must be considered “reasonable,” that is, an employer can provide it without overly harming the business or costing the business too much, and the employee must be able to perform the job adequately with the accommodation.
3. If your provider can’t (or won’t) help you, talk to someone else
Unfortunately, most providers are NOT well acquainted with the ADA. Patients often need to be their own advocates in terms of seeking workplace accommodations. If your provider does not seem responsive to your need for workplace accommodations or is unwilling to speak with you about it, you can speak to another provider who may provide the appropriate documentation. This does not mean you are severing your provider-patient relationship; it just means you need help with your ADA request. A good start is to review the ADA FAQ’s from the Department of Labor. (Editor’s Note: NAMI offers a good overview and you can learn more from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Labor so you can educate your provider.)
4. Talk to your employer
Remember, employers are not obligated to accommodate disabilities that they do not know about. That means it’s up to you to request an accommodation, and it must be an accommodation that can allow you to successfully perform the essential job functions.
Your provider must state that you need an accommodation due to a “medical condition;” you do not have to state what the medical condition is, you do not have to mention the ADA, and you do not have to use the phrase “reasonable accommodation” at all. When put in place, most accommodations are fairly subtle (different start times, etc.), and no one needs to know the specific details about why the accommodation is in place.
For more detailed information about how to request an accommodation, see the Employees’ Practical Guide to Negotiating and Requesting Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).
5. Remember, you are not alone
Recognizing that a person living with a mental health condition needs reasonable accommodations can provide perspective. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Once people accept that they are not alone in dealing with mental or behavioral health challenges, they may be more willing to speak up and seek workplace accommodations. Incorporating behavioral health into the workplace in this way helps to bring it out the shadows into the realm of a common, frequent, and manageable health condition, and ultimately leads to greater success for both the employee and employer.
- How have you used the ADA to secure workplace accommodations for living with a mental health condition?
- How has your employer responded to a request for ADA accommodations?
Mark Siegert, PhD is a Clinical Psychologist and Forensic Psychologist with 30+ years of experience helping at the interface between employers and employees when problems arise. His expertise includes Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Substance Abuse and those with Suicidal ideation and intent.
Mark is a former faculty member at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School and Columbia University. Mark has been a guest on Fox News O’Reilly Factor, CNN, MSNBC, CourtTV with Nancy Grace, Fox and Friends, WNBC Today Show, Morning Edition, National Public Radio. For additional information, visit MarkSiegert.com.