ADA can require reasonable accommodations for anxiety, in some cases

Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million Americans today, so you’ve probably managed or are managing an employee that has one (or you may have one too). While it’s normal to experience a little anxiety over major events like weddings and job interviews — those with serious anxiety disorders experience intense fear, panic attacks, and elevated stress levels over everyday events. These disorders can make it exceptionally difficult to get through the workday.

How can you help employees struggling with anxiety disorders?

There are special ADA accommodations for anxiety that can help anxious employees better perform their job functions and improve their morale, efficiency, and productivity. Anxiety disorders may cause employees to have trouble concentrating, staying organized, and completing their regular job tasks. Accommodations like private spaces support animals, frequent breaks, and flexible work schedules can help employees with anxiety disorders improve their job performance.

Not only that but as long as the arrangements don’t cause undue hardship to your organization, you’re legally required to accommodate employees that experience severe anxiety under ADA. Of course, certain stipulations apply — as do state laws — which is why you need to understand the laws surrounding anxiety accommodations to ensure you stay in compliance.

We’re here to make things easier for you, so stay tuned to learn everything you need to know about ADA accommodations for anxiety disorders.

Understanding anxiety disorders

First, it’s important to understand what anxiety disorders are and how they can affect mental health. While a little bit of worrying is completely normal, anxiety becomes a disorder whenever a person has severe feelings of fear and uncertainty about everyday activities that lasts 6 months or more. Anxiety disorders affect nearly 1 in 5 Americans, ranging in type and severity.

Here’s a glimpse at the most common types of anxiety disorders that may affect your employees:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. Affecting almost 7 million Americans, those with generalized anxiety disorder have difficulty not worrying about everyday events, even if there’s little to no cause for concern.

  • Panic disorder. People with panic disorders experience regular panic attacks, which is a sudden yet intense bouts of fear that may mimic the symptoms of a heart attack (i.e., difficulty breathing, numbness, chest pain).

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those with OCD experience extreme compulsions to do things like frequently wash their hands, clean their work area, and organize their workstation to the detriment of their other duties.

  • Specific phobias. A phobia is an irrational fear or an extreme aversion to something, such as heights, being underwater, or being around certain animals.

  • Agoraphobia. Speaking of phobias, agoraphobia is an extreme fear of leaving one’s home or being in extremely crowded areas (like a densely packed office space).

  • Social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety involves worrying about social events. Those with social phobia dread being in public, as it makes them feel embarrassed, awkward, and judged. 15 million Americans in the US experience social anxiety, making it one of the most common anxiety disorders.

  • Separation anxiety disorder. Someone has separation anxiety when they constantly worry about being separated from loved ones or being away from home for too long.

As you can see, anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways, which can make providing reasonable accommodations a bit difficult (read on for a list of accommodations that cover various types of anxiety).

What does ADA say about anxiety?

The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t provide a list of disabilities and medical conditions that it officially protects.

Instead, for a disability to qualify for protection under ADA, it needs to meet these three criteria:

  1. The physical or mental impairment must significantly limit one or more major life activities. So if an employee’s anxiety is mild and doesn’t interfere with their job duties, their anxiety disorder WOULD NOT be protected under ADA.

  2. The employee must have a record of the impairment or disability. In the case of anxiety and other mental health conditions, they need an official diagnosis (with medical documentation) from a healthcare professional.

  3. The employee must be regarded as having a disability to qualify. In other words, you, as the employer, must be made aware of your disability before they can request accommodations or accuse you of discrimination.

If an employee requesting accommodations doesn’t meet these 3 criteria, you won’t be obligated under federal law to provide anything. In that scenario, it would be at your organization’s discretion whether you provide accommodations or not, but you wouldn’t have to comply with ADA.

If the employee’s disability does check all the boxes, then you’ll have to provide ADA accommodations for anxiety UNLESS:

  • Your organization employs fewer than 15 people.

  • Providing the accommodations will cause undue hardship on your business.

That means smaller operations are exempt from ADA accommodations, but some state laws may still apply.

What’s undue hardship?

ada-accommodations-anxiety-450x350pxWhat qualifies as undue hardship on your organization?

It’s determined on a strictly case-by-case basis, but they usually consider the same factors, including the following:

  • The size of the employer’s operation. Larger operations that have more resources are expected to provide more robust accommodations than smaller ones.

  • The difficulty of the accommodation. Undue hardship can be established whenever an accommodation is extraordinarily difficult for an organization, like providing flexible schedules when short-staffed.

  • The nature of the operation. Sometimes certain work environments are too demanding or chaotic to provide an employee’s requested workplace accommodations. An example would be an operation that’s too fast-paced to allow generous break schedules.

So if an employee presents you with some accommodation ideas that you feel you can’t provide, you can claim that they’ll cause undue hardship on your operation.

Examples of when anxiety is protected under ADA

As stated previously, ADA only covers anxiety disorders when they limit one or more major life activities. Those major life activities also include essential functions at their job, but they don’t have to.

Here are some examples of how anxiety can inhibit major life activities (which will qualify for ADA protection):

  • When anxiety is so severe that the employee can’t eat or sleep due to overactive worrying and feelings of fear.

  • If they aren’t able to properly regulate their feelings or emotions.

  • If they can’t think and concentrate.

  • If there’s trouble communicating or interacting with others due to social anxiety.

These are all ways that anxiety can interfere with everyday life, including job duties. It’s also important to note that employees may still be protected under ADA if their symptoms come and go.

The key is the severity of the symptoms when they do show. If the symptoms do inhibit daily activities when they appear, then ADA protection still applies. So if you have an employee that only has periodic panic attacks or bouts of anxiety that are rehabilitating when they do occur, they’re likely still protected under ADA.

Common examples of ADA accommodations for anxiety

Now that you know more about anxiety disorders and when they’re covered by ADA, it’s time to learn how to accommodate employees with anxiety. As you already know, there are many different types of anxiety, and they each require different types of accommodations.

Here’s how you can accommodate employees experiencing extreme anxiety symptoms at your organization.

Social anxiety accommodations

First, let’s take a look at how to accommodate employees that experience stress and anxiety from social situations. These employees are the most stressed when they have to communicate with coworkers in person.

Here are a few ways to limit their anxiety and improve their performance:

  • Allow them to occasionally work from home by implementing hybrid work schedules.

  • Enable alternative methods of communication to face-to-face (i.e., Zoom calls, text messages, emails, etc.).

  • Allowing breaks whenever their social anxiety flares up.

These are all reasonable accommodations that should benefit both the employee and your organization, which is a plus.

Accommodations for trouble concentrating

Sometimes an employee’s anxiety can cause them to have trouble staying focused at work.

Here are some accommodations that will help them concentrate on the job:

  • Provide private workspaces where they’re free of all distractions.

  • Providing noise-canceling headsets to help them stay focused.

  • More natural light (artificial light can interfere with concentration).

  • White noise generators or apps to help with concentration.

  • Soundproofing panels for their office to block all unwanted noise.

With these accommodations in place, your employees should see boosted productivity and efficiency.

Accommodations for stress intolerance

Anxiety disorders can cause your employees to have a very low-stress tolerance, which can affect their job performance.

Here are some possible accommodations for stress intolerance:

  • Allowing support animals to help reduce stress.

  • Flexible break schedules so they can get away from their desk whenever the stress is too great.

  • Lightening the employee’s workload (especially if they have a lot of repetitive, menial tasks).

  • Modifying your work environment so that it’s calmer and more pleasant, like using calming color schemes, adding plants, or using more natural light.

These arrangements will make your workplace a lot less stressful, which is useful for employees that have panic disorders and generalized anxiety disorders.

Final thoughts: ADA accommodations for anxiety

To recap, you must provide ADA accommodations for anxiety if:

  • The employee’s disorder interferes with one or more major life activities

  • You employ more than 15 people in your organization

  • The requested accommodations don’t provide undue hardship to your organization

Besides that, it’s integral to look up any state laws that may apply to anxiety disorder accommodations, as they can provide similar protections. As long as you know the law and do your best to provide reasonable accommodations, you shouldn’t have any trouble working with employees with anxiety disorders.