Reasonable Accommodation for Mental Disabilities in the Workplace

Like physical disabilities, mental disabilities are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

If you have a disability, you may be entitled to reasonable accommodation at work: changes to your duties, your worksite, your schedule, or workplace policies that will allow you to do your job. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, unless doing so would create undue hardship.

The ADA applies to both physical and mental disabilities (as do similar state laws). However, mental disabilities are not always as obvious as physical disabilities. An employer might think an employee is simply difficult to get along with, high-strung, or a poor performer, without knowing that the employee actually has a disability. Unfortunately, mental disabilities are still stigmatized to some degree, which means employers may not know as much about how these conditions affect employees and what types of workplace accommodations would be effective.

What Are Mental Disabilities?

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or a major bodily function. Major life activities that may be seriously impacted by mental disabilities include concentrating, thinking, sleeping, reading, and caring for oneself. Major bodily functions include the proper functioning of the brain and neurological systems, which can also be deeply affected by mental disabilities.

The ADA does not include a list of conditions that always qualify as disabilities. Instead, any condition that meets the definition above is a disability. However, certain conditions are very likely to qualify as disabilities under the ADA including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other conditions may also qualify, including anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and mood disorders. Intellectual disabilities (the preferred term for what used to be called mental retardation) and developmental disorders, such as autism, are also very likely to qualify as disabilities.

What Are an Employer's Obligations?

The ADA applies only to employers with 15 or more employees. However, some state disability discrimination laws apply to smaller employers. (Select your state from our Discrimination and Harassment page to learn more.)

Employers covered by the ADA must provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, if the accommodation is necessary to allow the employee to perform his or her job. Accommodations might include:

  • changes to the physical structure of the workplace
  • modifications to workplace policies
  • scheduling changes
  • time off work
  • job restructuring, or
  • reassignment to a different job.

The burden is on the employee to request a reasonable accommodation. The employer must then engage in a dialogue with the employee – called a “flexible, interactive process” – to try to come up with possible changes that will allow the employee to do the job. (For information on this process, see Requesting Reasonable Accommodation for a Mental Disability.)

The employer need not provide an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant burden or expense, given the size, structure, resources, and nature of the employer. For example, while it would likely be reasonable to ask a supervisor to provide clear, written job assignments and give weekly feedback to an employee with an intellectual disability, it would probably not be reasonable to ask the supervisor to spend the majority of each day helping the employee complete job tasks.

What Are Some Possible Accommodations?

There is a broad range of potential accommodations for employees with mental disabilities. Depending on how an employee’s disability manifests and affects his or her work, effective accommodations might include:

  • time off work for therapy, medical appointments, or hospitalization
  • scheduling changes (for example, allowing an employee whose medication causes morning drowsiness to come in later, or allowing an employee with anxiety disorder to take breaks during the day for meditation and relaxation exercises)
  • changes to the workspace to reduce distraction and help concentration (such as limiting noise or giving the employee an office with a door that closes)
  • changes in supervisory style (for instance, providing instructions orally or in writing, whichever is most useful to the employee; providing more regular feedback; giving more positive reinforcement; or setting goals and deadlines well in advance)
  • allowing the employee to have an emotional support or other service animal at work, or
  • providing organizational and memory aids, such as an online calendaring system or detailed notes from meetings.

As you can see, there are many potential accommodations for mental disabilities, and plenty of them cost very little (if anything) to implement. What will be most effective in a given situation depends on the employee’s needs and the flexibility of the job and workplace. For detailed information on accommodations for particular needs, see Accommodations Ideas for Mental Health Impairments, available at the extraordinarily helpful website of the Job Accommodation Network.

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