The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25 years old in 2015. Over the past quarter-century, the legislation has done tremendous amounts for workers in the U.S. who live with a variety of physical and mental illnesses.
However, the ADA is still experiencing growing pains even 25 years after its enactment into law. Specifically, one area that tends to be rife with controversy and interpretive differences regarding employers’ obligations to staff members is mental health. In fact, in recent years, the gaps in the ADA’s protections when it comes to mental illness have only become more pronounced as cases exploring these sensitive areas continue to surface.
One of they key provisions of this important law is that employers must provide staff members with an identified disability with reasonable accommodations so the employees can perform effectively. This key pillar is actually one of the more nebulous parts of the law in terms of interpreting employer responsibility, especially in the mental health arena.
A high-profile case can be found in 2012’s Kiera Barber v. Subway. According to Human Resource Executive Online, the plaintiff sued the sandwich magnate when she was terminated for leaving her post during an acute anxiety episode. The source indicated that Barber disclosed her anxiety to her employer when she was hired and was told that reasonable accommodation would be made for her at work. A jury later ruled that Subway was in violation of the ADA for terminating Barber due to her illness.
Perhaps the most significant reason employers have difficulty accommodating mental health concerns is the invisible nature of many such conditions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for employers to mistake symptoms of mental health issues for mere poor work performance.
Unfortunately, this difficulty is largely due to the professional stigma surrounding the disclosure of mental illness in many workplaces, leading those who live with these conditions to not disclose their illness to employers for fear of backlash or even termination.
It is crucial, however, that employers revise policy to effectively accommodate these conditions. The Society for Human Resource Management noted that depression is the second-leading cause of disability in the U.S., and some 18 percent of adults experience some form of long-term mental illness.
Identifying the issues
Effectively managing mental health accommodation relies on identifying the issue, and then working with the employee to determine what level of reasonable accommodation is required. Small businesses that may have difficulty navigating this tricky legal landscape are encouraged to work with PEO companies to ensure they remain compliant with their policymaking.