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Shine a light on SAD, ADA accommodations and the FMLA

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

As the winter months set in, some people may notice that they feel more tired, experience weight gain or struggle to get out of bed in the morning. For most, those symptoms begin in the fall, peak in the winter and resolve in the spring.

While the majority of people who experience these symptoms have nothing more serious than the “winter blues,” others suffer from a potentially debilitating condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is an extreme form of common seasonal mood cycles that can be associated with mild, moderate or severe depression. The condition is often, but not always, triggered by the changing of the seasons. Some people who work long hours in office buildings with few windows may experience SAD symptoms all year round.

A possible disability

Some of the symptoms associated with SAD include depression, mood swings, severe lack of energy, increased need for sleep, difficulty concentrating, exaggerated weight gain, sadness, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide.

The exact cause of SAD isn’t known. However, most experts attribute the condition to an imbalance of two chemicals in the brain: melatonin and serotonin. With longer periods of darkness during the winter months, levels of melatonin may increase and levels of serotonin may decrease. The imbalance can create the biological conditions that lead to depression.

Depression affects almost 19 million Americans a year, and SAD affects about 6% of American adults. With such a large portion of the population affected, many employers will have employees who suffer from this condition.

Be careful not to brush off employees who complain of SAD.

In fact, you need to consider whether employees with SAD symptoms have a disability protected by law, particularly the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAA) enacted in January, which expanded the reach of the ADA.

SAD and the ADA

If an employee with SAD has symptoms of depression or another medical condition, he or she may be disabled under the ADA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

To be disabled under those statutes, an employee must be substantially impaired in a major life activity, compared to most people in the general population. Further, any mitigating measures taken to deal with the employee’s depression—such as medication, psychotherapy or other treatment—may not be considered in determining whether the employee has a disability.

If an employee with SAD has depression and, as a result, is substantially impaired, the employee is entitled to protection from discrimination, and may also be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

That means you must take seriously an employee’s request for some assistance to deal with SAD in the workplace. As with any disability, you are required to engage in an interactive process with an employee who makes known a need for reasonable accommodation.

Your goal: to try to arrive at a solution that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job without causing an undue hardship for the employer.

SAD and the FMLA

An employee with SAD also may be entitled to leave under the FMLA.

Depression is a condition that, under certain circumstances, can qualify an individual as having a serious health condition under the FMLA. If the employee’s SAD constitutes a serious health condition, he or she would be entitled to up to 12 weeks of leave for treatment, doctors’ appointments and the like.

Employers cannot discriminate or retaliate against an employee who requires FMLA leave due to SAD.

Advice: It pays to take SAD seriously. Don’t ignore a request for reasonable accommodations or FMLA leave. Instead, handle the matter the same way you would other such requests.

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