Is insomnia a disability? ADA eligibility and accommodations

Insomnia as a disability: Rights, benefits, and legal protections

If you’ve ever experienced chronic insomnia, you can attest to its ability to wreak havoc on daily life.

From nodding off at work to interfering with essential functions, insomnia is a condition that negatively affects job performance in lots of different ways.

This begs the question: is insomnia a disability under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)?

While not formally recognized disabilities, sleep disorders like insomnia are often symptoms of larger issues – which usually can qualify as disabilities.

30% of adults have occasional insomnia, while 10% have severe enough cases that it interferes with major life activities.

This means you’re bound to eventually run into an employee with insomnia (or a related sleep disorder), so it’s worth knowing what the law has to say about it.

In this article, we’ll explore whether insomnia is a protected disability under the ADA, as well as:

  • Learn about the impacts of insomnia
  • Discover ways to accommodate employees with sleep disorders
  • Pinpoint the underlying issues causing insomnia that may qualify as disorders

It’s important to note that brief bouts of insomnia aren’t severe enough to warrant legal protection under the ADA.

If, however, an employee experiences occasional insomnia because they have narcolepsy (a protected disability under the ADA), then you will have to provide reasonable accommodations for the condition.

As you can see, the topic is a tad complicated, so read on to learn everything you need to know.

What is insomnia, and is it a disability?

First, let’s look closely at insomnia and its underlying causes.

Insomnia is an extremely common sleep disorder that causes difficulty falling or staying asleep. Insomnia may cause you to wake up too early after falling asleep, and you may find it extremely difficult to get back to sleep after waking up.

It’s important to distinguish insomnia from sleep deprivation, as the two terms are not interchangeable.

Insomnia is a symptom that causes problems with sleeping and staying asleep.

Sleep deprivation occurs whenever an individual doesn’t get enough sleep, and the cause doesn’t have to be insomnia (although insomnia definitely causes sleep deprivation). For example, you could experience sleep deprivation due to an extended night of partying.

Since you stayed out all night, you didn’t have enough time to get an adequate amount of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is an issue in its own right, as an alarming amount of employees experience a lack of sleep. According to the National Safety Council, more than 43% of employees are currently sleep-deprived, costing employers up to $3,100 per worker.

Cases of insomnia range from occasional sleep disturbances to chronic sleeplessness.

Here’s a list of common symptoms related to insomnia:

  • Trouble falling asleep, even when tired
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Adverse effects on job performance and daily activities
  • Difficulty concentrating or staying awake during the workday
  • Adverse effects on your judgment and decision-making
  • Mood swings, irritability, and anxiousness
  • Lethargy and chronic fatigue

How is insomnia categorized?

By most standards, including disability law, insomnia is not an officially recognized disability.

Instead, it’s a symptom of an underlying issue, which could be a mental health condition like depression or anxiety – both of which can qualify as disabilities.

The qualifying factor for most disabilities is a significant disruption to daily life activities, which includes work.

Despite this, insomnia doesn’t meet the definition of disability for the ADA and SSA (Social Security Administration), but more on this in a bit.

Since it’s a symptom and not a disability, employees with insomnia should analyze their existing physical conditions to determine the root cause of their trouble sleeping.

If they have another issue that is protected, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, their insomnia falls under the umbrella of that protected disability. This means the individual is eligible for disability benefits and reasonable accommodations for their insomnia (and PTSD).

The impacts of insomnia on employees

Sleep is an integral part of health, and your employees must get enough sleep at night to function properly during the day.

Severe bouts of insomnia can have devastating effects on an employee, their team, and your organization as a whole.

For example, let’s say you manage a team that operates heavy machinery, and one of your team members has had extreme difficulty sleeping for a week straight.

At this point, their lack of sleep is an impairment similar to drinking too much alcohol. They now have delayed reaction times, which can mean life and death when operating dangerous equipment.

Besides that, sleep deprivation heavily impairs their ability to make decisions and pass moral judgment.

Even if your employees don’t operate dangerous equipment, insomnia can still have a negative impact on your bottom line.

As stated previously, sleep-deprived employees are far less effective and cost employers up to $3,100 each year. When employees don’t get enough rest, they’re less productive, may be irritable, and are more prone to making costly mistakes.

Due to their mental impairment from a lack of sleep, they may argue or fight with co-workers that they typically get along with.

Not only that, but they may have negative interactions or experiences with customers, which is another reason why ensuring your employees get enough sleep is worth it.

Is insomnia protected under the ADA?

Now, let’s look at what the ADA has to say. Contrary to popular belief, the ADA does not have a list of qualified disabilities it protects.

Instead, it lists a definition of disability that applies to all physical and mental conditions. According to the ADA, a disability is any condition that interferes with major life activities and that the qualified individual has evidence of (like medical documentation).

As stated before, insomnia is not considered a disability but a symptom of a more significant issue.

This means that employees with insomnia will have to provide proof of an official medical condition with insomnia as one of its symptoms.

Unlike insomnia, sleep apnea can qualify as a disability under the ADA – but only if it’s severe enough to inhibit major life activities.

Here’s a list of medical conditions that ADA protects and have insomnia as a symptom:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Dementia

Suppose an employee worries about their eligibility for insomnia accommodations under the ADA. In that case, they should first determine if they have a more significant issue that’s protected, like the ones listed above.

Should they have a protected disability, they can request reasonable accommodations from your organization, and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) will require you to do so (as long as it doesn’t place undue hardship on your business).

Is insomnia protected by the SSA?

Besides the ADA, the Social Security Administration also provides benefits for disabled employees. In particular, the SSA runs disability insurance programs.

Like the ADA, the SSA does not recognize insomnia as an official social security disability.

Unlike the ADA, the SSA has a list of protected disabilities, which you can find here.

The SSA defines a disability as the inability to perform work tasks properly due to a physical or mental impairment. Once again, the SSA does cover other conditions that have insomnia as a symptom, which is something employees should know.

Also, the SSA’s Blue Book doesn’t account for all the disabilities the organization covers. If an employee can provide sufficient evidence that insomnia is disrupting their quality of life, they may receive coverage after all.

Employees should talk to their healthcare provider to determine if pursuing coverage from the SSA is realistic. If your physician thinks it’s feasible, they may provide you with the necessary medical documentation to prove your case.

Accommodating employees with insomnia and other sleep disorders

As stated before, sleep deprivation can have seriously adverse effects on employees and organizations. That’s why managers must do what they can to ensure their team gets enough rest during the night.

Here’s how employers can reasonably accommodate employees with sleep disorders like insomnia.

Maintain reasonable work schedules

Are your employees consistently putting in 60-hour work weeks?

If so, that’s not only a recipe for burnout, but it’s also very likely to cause conditions like insomnia and depression.

Working overtime is exhausting for employees, and working long hours for extended periods can have adverse health effects. Besides that, stressed-out, overworked employees aren’t very productive and are usually disengaged or motivated.

If you notice your employees acting fatigued or irritable, ensure you aren’t making them work too many hours.

Hold outdoor meetings/walks

Studies have shown that walking for 30 minutes sometime during the day actually improves sleep quality.

You can ensure your team gets their 30 minutes in during your morning meetings, which you can hold outside.

This will improve their sleep quality and allow them to appreciate the fresh air and scenery before heading into the office.

Encourage mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness is a great way to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia. Research shows that mindfulness techniques are effective in reducing insomnia, fatigue, and depression.

You should encourage your employees to do this, especially if they’re having trouble sleeping (or if they’re stressed out).

Why are mindfulness and meditation so effective for improving sleep?

They are because both techniques trigger the relaxation response in the body. Coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, the relaxation response is the polar opposite of the stress response and leads to better sleep, mental health, and well-being.

Provide periodic rest breaks

Another way to alleviate employee fatigue is to provide official rest breaks.

These are different from employee lunch breaks and should be handed out periodically.

For example, give your employees one 30-minute lunch break and two 10-minute rest breaks during an 8-hour shift.

During rest breaks, your employees are free to stop working, relax, eat snacks, or close their eyes for a few minutes.

This can give your team the pick-me-up they need to feel refreshed and resume working at peak productivity levels.

Flexible scheduling

Hybrid work schedules have become increasingly popular since the COVID-19 pandemic and don’t always include working from home.

Some employees enjoy the freedom of flexible schedules, where they can set their own hours.

This is great because if employees have trouble sleeping one night, they can push their work schedule around to get more rest. If you have the option, it can be worth allowing your employees to schedule their hours to avoid burnout and fatigue.

Encourage healthy nighttime routines

Lastly, poor sleep habits can cause insomnia and other sleep disorders.

This is why it’s integral for employees to:

  • Avoid stimulants (like coffee) several hours before bed
  • Don’t use blue light devices (TVs, phones, tablets) before going to sleep
  • Read or meditate before bed to get sleepy
  • Don’t eat a large meal before going to bed

As long as your employees have healthy sleeping habits, you should see a reduction in sleep deprivation and insomnia.

Final thoughts: Insomnia and the ADA

Insomnia is a surprisingly common symptom that affects one-third of the population.

Not being able to sleep is not only frustrating but can have serious health effects, especially if the condition continues for the long term.

Managers must accommodate employees with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. If the employee has an underlying condition causing insomnia, like PTSD, they can also request reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

More Resources:
ADA alcoholism: Breaking the stigma and finding support
ADA and the hearing impaired: What employers should know
Doctors note for work: What employers need & how to get one