Job Stress Can Count as FMLA-Eligible ‘Serious’ Condition

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The inability to go to work due to stress and anxiety about a pending termination or other performance issues may well be considered a “serious health condition” that’s covered by the FMLA.

If a health care provider is willing to diagnose it as a serious health condition, it doesn’t matter if the stressed-out employee is able to work elsewhere or otherwise engage in normal day-to-day activities. That person is still entitled to FMLA leave and you can’t retaliate against him or her for taking that leave.

Recent case: Karen Meadows worked her way up through the ranks at TEXAR Federal Credit Union, starting as a teller making $5.15 per hour. By the time she was terminated after taking FMLA leave, she was making well over $50,000 and managing a branch.

All was going well with her career until suddenly her supervisor began criticizing her work, warning Meadows that her job was in danger.

Meadows became anxious and depressed and sought out medical treatment. Her family doctor sent her to a clinical psychologist and advised she take some time off work. The psychologist concurred, diagnosed a major depressive disorder and prescribed medication.

But the same psychologist also told Meadows to look for a new job while she was on FMLA leave and to engage in normal social activities. As a result, Meadows spent much of her leave shopping, socializing, going to sporting events with her husband and children and otherwise leading a normal life.

After her 12 weeks of leave were up, TEXAR discharged Meadows, ostensibly because she didn’t return to work. But Meadows said she didn’t show up because she got a letter during her leave telling her that her job had been filled and she wasn’t entitled to leave.

Meadows sued, and TEXAR demanded the case be dismissed since Meadows clearly hadn’t been incapacitated during her time off and therefore hadn’t been entitled to leave.

Not necessarily, said the court. Employees who can’t come to work because of stress may have serious health conditions, even if they can function normally otherwise. (Meadows v. TEXAR Federal Credit Union, No. 5:05-CV-158, ED TX, 2007)  

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